Podcasting “The Best Defense Against Rubber-Hose Cryptanalysis”

The cypherpunks were wrong (but also right)

Cory Doctorow
8 min readApr 4, 2022


A medieval engraving of a prisoner being tortured on a rack; in the background is a waterfall effect from The Matrix.

This week on my podcast, I read my Medium column, “The Best Defense Against Rubber-Hose Cryptanalysis,” about what the cypherpunks got wrong, what they got right, and what that says about claims that cryptocurrency will defend us from tyranny:


30 years ago, the cypherpunks — forerunners of the cryptocurrency movement — waged an epic battle to ensure that we could all access working cryptography. They believed that safeguarding individuals’ right to privacy technology could profoundly alter the relationship of people and their governments.

Governments agreed! The NSA and other agencies were determined to ban civilian access to working crypto, insisting instead that we should all use a deliberately broken cipher that they were widely understood to be able to break. The agencies claimed that this would strike a balance: on the one hand, it would keep American individuals, agencies and businesses safe from criminals, state actors and corporate spies.

On the other hand, it would let the agencies break into our communications to keep us safe from child pornographers, terrorists, copyright infringers and the mafia (AKA “The Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse”).

With the cypherpunks and the NSA both convinced that unbreakable ciphers represented a seismic shift, the battle was joined. Pro-crypto fighters put up a valiant fight: they even built a $250,000 computer, Deep Crack, that could brute-force the NSA’s neutered cipher (this computer currently sits next to my desk in my home office — seriously!).

Deep Crack proved that the NSA was deluded or lying: if we all used the NSA’s cipher to protect ourselves, we’d be vulnerable to anyone with $250k to throw at our communications, who could then read our messages, forge software updates for our devices, and generally make a lot of mischief.

But despite this objective proof, the NSA and its allies were adamant that we could not be trusted with working crypto. Neither the cypherpunks’ technological demonstrations, nor the pleas from security experts with warnings about corporate…



Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr