Shashank Yadav

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Alice & Bob

On Trust & Cryptography

“Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action. It is the essential building block of independence on the Internet, just like armies are the essential building blocks of states, because otherwise one state just takes over another.”

Julian Assange, Founder — Wikileaks

“It is the most important form of secret intelligence in the world today. It produces much more and much more trustworthy information than spies, and this intelligence exerts great influence upon the policies of governments. Cryptology itself can benefit, like other spheres of human endeavor, from knowing its major trends, its great men, its errors made and the lessons learned.”

David Kahn, The Codebreakers

“One must acknowledge with cryptography no amount of violence will ever solve a math problem.”

Jacob Appelbaum, Cypherpunks

Alice and Bob are selfish people who should never trust each other, maybe I do not really know, but they certainly use all kinds of cryptography and masks and games to bolster their stealth and pursue their interests, so we will say that these two actors never truly trust or promise and always feign some trust in some reality, that is what they believe the state of affairs to be which directs their actions. As some old Indian traditions say, the universe is falsehood, and it very certainly is for the protagonists of a cryptographic romance and the self-interested players of our interest, Alice and Bob, as they are known today by default setting.

Between Alice and Bob, trust does not equate to promise and it is never bidirectional. Also Alice and Bob are not the only people in the world, they interact with other Bobs and Alices too. So it can be said that they are multilateral agents. They try and make a deal that ensures at least some reciprocity in trust and promise and we call this deal a contract, defining the terms of their relationship with other agents and a computational contract automatically adjusts and executes this relationship for them.

Routing of Trust

Historically cryptography has been defined as the study and practice of communication in an adversarial environment. We’d say that for Alice and Bob a benign environment does not exist at all. While they are not the same, in a network that consists of adversaries, Alice and Bob would want to be indistinguishable from each other. That way they can ensure some anonymity from the adversaries while the lack of identification allows them to operate with stealth. So Alice and Bob may not trust each other but they do trust that the others are untrustworthy.

As since the routing of value benefits from trust, the networks of value thrive on anonymity.

Distrust is a negative word, so we say that the network should be trustless. In such environments, privacy just becomes the barriers that Alice and Bob put in place for themselves, assuming that everyone, including a global adversary, is out to break those barriers and get to them. Privacy after all is also a mere contract between the individual and the society — like a funnel, at one end of which is the individual and on the other end the whole network/society — the nodes closer to the individual gain more weight and access. The nodes, Alice or Bob we may not know, could present the network with an indistinguishable or even a unique identity which is parsed differently by different nodes as per their relationship with the broadcasting nodes.

The Adversary

One aspect which is generally missed for its difficulty of measurement so far is the mental state of the multilateral agents in the adversarial environments. Alice and Bob could be humans, could not be humans, or could be both, as in a team of humans and AI with common purpose acting as a single node. While node reputation can be determined, a node can act deceptively for long periods to accumulate trust of the network before begining its sabotage operations. Traditional reputation systems do not work to mitigate the risks when Alice and Bob themselves act as adversaries of each other and use deceptive traffic to feign friendly behaviour. Mental state of multilateral agents is even more crucial to determine to understand their motivation, and such states increasingly do not apply to humans alone. Each node must assume the rest to be deceptive and inimical.

The universe is falsehood.

For networks of intrinsic value, anonymity of nodes is a technical requirement for survival and resilience, not just a desired attribute. It may still allow for the “protective supervision” of law enforcement to continue but albiet in a saner way. To ponder upon whether Alice and Bob are really good and trustworthy agents is futile — the best course of action as the protagonist in motion picture “V for Vendetta” would say — is to give them a mask, and they will show their true face.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider tipping some ETH on 0xa8394F1A6f7eD97668F65AfB007AeE96828fd204 so I continue this writing, thanks!

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