The world’s most famous whistleblower, Edward Snowden, gave a dynamic, wide-ranging interview to Peter Van Valkenburgh during Blockstack Berlin 2018. Mr. Snowden discussed ongoing issues of privacy and cryptocurrency, his preferences, and revealed how bitcoin helped him in his most historic hour. He also took the opportunity to chide growing crypto tribalism, calling out maximalists, and insisted bitcoin core developers need to up their collective game.
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Edward Snowden Gives State of Crypto Remarks
“I don’t think bitcoin will last forever […],” Mr. Snowden teased. “The first browser created is not the best browser that we have ever seen. Bitcoin does important work, and I do think it will have enduring value for a long time. But particularly when we look at the core development team and their rate of improvement to the protocol, they simply need to do better or they will not be able to compete.”
Right at the 43:00 minute mark, famed crypto legal expert Peter Van Valkenburgh of Coin Center turned the hour long interview to bitcoin. His piped-in guest from Russia was none other than Edward Snowden, erstwhile leaker of massive caches of National Security Agency documents. “Do you have any cryptocurrencies? Do you have any digital money?” Mr. Van Valkenburgh asked of Mr. Snowden. “Are you excited about cryptocurrencies?”
Looking every bit like Edward Snowden, charcoal blazer, fashion forward eyeglass frames, Mr. Snowden began, “As a privacy advocate, I would recommend no one ever say that they have cryptocurrencies,” he smiled and laughed hoarsely as the audience laughed along and applauded. “I like this audience,” he continued. “What I would say is this, when I was working on the great project of my life back in 2013, and trying to figure out things like how could I get this archive of material to journalists […] in a safe way that’s uncontrolled, that’s unseen, that happens permissionlessly, there is a question of do I need server infrastructure of my own.”
In a series of juicy musings combined with a rhetorical question, a wry smile again appeared as Mr. Snowden answered, “Maybe the answer is yes. Okay, how do I pay for that anonymously? Maybe, maaaaybe someone like me may have used bitcoin for something like that. There are a lot of technologies that are here today, that have served our interest in the past, that have never gotten the public shout-outs that maybe they could have [….]”
Bitcoin’s Public Blockchain is a Flaw
In what will undoubtedly be the most controversial of his remarks, Mr. Snowden urged, “Everybody is focused on the transaction rate limitations of bitcoin being its central flaw, and that is a major one, but I would argue actually the much larger structural flaw, the long lasting flaw, is its public ledger. That is simply incompatible with having a enduring mechanism for trade. You cannot have a lifelong history of everyone’s purchases, all of their interactions, be available to everyone and have that workout well at scale. The limitations of how people engage with these cryptocurrencies are the limiting factor on the apocalypses we’ve had from it so far, a natural relief of pressure on it.”
On the subject of which cryptocurrency he favors, he revealed, “When we talk about which cryptocurrencies are interesting to me, I’ve said before and I’ll say again, Zcash, for me, is the most interesting right now because the privacy properties of it are truly unique. We see more and more projects that are trying to emulate this, and I think this is a positive thing. Monero is out there, and I’ve used Monero just like everyone else.”
Mr. Snowden chastised coin maximalists, the broader crypto community, for becoming too tribal, too wedded to a particular coin or project. He stressed the relative size of the ecosystem is very small and needs to grow, and so new and different projects should be encouraged for that reason and to encourage more people using crypto. “We already see governments finally reaching a point where they’re becoming very, very nervous, and moving closer and closer to a point of muscular intervention in how these technologies can be used. And if we do not have broad, public familiarity of use that’s willing to defend not just their coin but everybody else’s, we’re going to have real problems.”
Asked about Venezuela’s foray into a state-backed crypto, petro, and the prospects for the overall technology being co-opted by the likes of dictators, Mr. Snowden assured, “It’s not a question of if they will be, but when they will be. And it’s a question of how do we design competing systems that are simply so attractive that they will not be ignored by the global consumer base, but also the governments themselves who are seeking to compete against them will not simply be able to outlaw them and have that be meaningful [….]”
Asked about coders and developers forming an intelligentsia, a technocratic elite, what’s known classically as the power of elders, Mr. Snowden struck a decidedly positive tone. He recalled his personal admonition to journalists on releasing to them the cache of state secrets back in 2013: they were not to publish salacious material, but only what was in the public’s interest. It’s been five years, and not one media outlet violated his conditions. He said that bodes well for the future security of projects such as bitcoin, which have become very valuable and yet the integrity of wallets and blocks remains more or less in tact. “Problematic is not insurmountable,” he said.
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