DL Seminar | Crypto for the People
Updated: Apr 22
Individual reflections by Emma Condie and Jagan Subramanian (scroll below).
By Emma Condie
“Crypto” used to refer predominantly to cryptography, the practice of deciphering or writing codes. Now, when one searches the internet or a dictionary for the abbreviated term, the first listed definition most often reflects the modern default assumption that the nickname is short for cryptocurrency, the descriptor for any digital currency whose transactions are verified within a decentralized system (rather than by one principal entity such as a bank). This was one of the first points brought up by Associate Professor of Computer Science Seny Kamara of Brown University in the talk he delivered on March 24th, 2022 to the Digital Life Research Seminar hosted by the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech. The two subject areas of cryptography and cryptocurrencies are, of course, quite closely related–in fact they are overlapping. Cryptography is crucial to many emerging privacy practices, financing technologies, techniques for data analytics, cloud computing services, and novel approaches to security, including its role as the apparatus that makes the decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies both conceivable and realizable. There is much excitement around the (newer) topic of crypto and its potential alongside blockchain technology to reinvent financial systems across the globe and restructure modern societies in a manner that shifts more power to the people. In his talk entitled “Crypto for the People - Part 2,” a continuation of a previous address delivered over Zoom as a keynote speech for CRYPTO 2020–a virtual conference organized by the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR)–Kamara turned our attention back to the original meaning of “crypto,” his area of expertise and a discipline that he argues must strive with real care to benefit not just industry and the corporate world but also people, and specifically marginalized communities. By walking his audience through some of the recent research in the area of cryptography, Kamara hoped to draw our focus toward the difference between work truly motivated by existing social problems and work that merely postures as such by framing itself after the fact as addressing a social justice issue when the original motivations for the project were unrelated. Kamara’s assertion was that insincere branding is not benefitting underserved communities nor bringing useful attention to overlooked social justice issues by focusing on them as an afterthought, and in reality can be quite damaging. He cited numerous undertakings of this nature, including Facebook’sDiem project (formerly known as Libra) endeavoring to use fintech to provide financial accessibility to the unbanked and ideas around artificial intelligence instructors and chatbots for low-income and underserved areas in need of education solutions, projects that center their technological aspects rather than finding the most appropriate solution to such critical issues. Merely spinning a flashy narrative of how an exciting new element of technology could change the world does not equate to examining an issue from its root and designing an informed solution that will have a positive impact without producing dangerous negative externalities. Kamara implored that at minimum, one should be sure to seek the advice of experts in related fields within the social sciences and humanities or those with genuine life experiences who can relay key details and context about the problem one aims to solve. What is beneficial and indeed requisite is new research explored and new technology built in consultation with those same sorts of experts in order to address actual problems faced by marginalized groups.Such specialists will be able to tell you about the personal backgrounds and possibly even the psychological state of your target audience of future users, about which assumptions to make in the design process versus those that could derail your efforts, which risks are even tolerable, what crucial practical constraints you cannot avoid taking into consideration, what inevitable harms might be brought about by the project, and perhaps most importantly, when a more boring, “dumb” solution well might be more effective than the fancier, prettier one that would look better on your CV. Kamara worked on one such collaboration in partnership with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in early 2019. He worked with a mid-sized team of academics and very little funding to design a prototype for a voluntary and decentralized national gun registry, relying on the expertise of the senator and his staff to inform every decision they made throughout the process and iterating again and again to incorporate their suggested changes even knowing the necessary legislation might never come through and the protocol and system might never be deployed. Although not the ideal setup for such an important project without much financial or professional incentive, the team hoped regardless to have a policy impact by changing the shape of the debate around gun violence by showing the potential for a solution to the issue of gun owner privacy.
Citing other well-designed and well-informed projects being pursued by professionals at other global institutions, Kamara ended his talk describing how he intentionally crafts the courses he teaches at Brown to instill his students with the same sense of moral responsibility he feels. As much as his work is rooted in his love for cryptography, it is equally aimed at preparing students to think critically about their own projects and expand their worldviews in addition to honing their technical skills.
By Jagan Subramanian
It is fascinating to decrypt the etymology of the term “crypto” as it provides us with a starting point to understand how it is wielded for political obfuscation. Crypto (Greek: krúptō), roughly meaning “I conceal” has been used for at least the last 2,500 years to refer to the tactic of
self-protection through concealment of information. From Julius Caesar’s first cipher in ancient Rome (an encryption technique he used to send secret messages to his generals) to steganography in the middle ages (where cryptography was used interchangeably with the term “magic”), crypto has always been about rearranging power: it configures who can do what, from what. This makes cryptography an inherently political tool, and it confers on the field an intrinsically moral dimension. Seny Kamara’s prelude to his talk on “Crypto for the People” invites us as technologists to understand that while the field of cryptography is intellectually impressive, it is not politically neutral and is detached from real-world concerns. The work that cryptographers do regularly benefits industry players, governments and VCs but does not offer much to a person walking down the street.
Okay, so you’re either convinced by what I proposed to you or inspired by the Snowden leaks and agree that cryptography needs to be used for “good”, whatever that means, how do you achieve that? Kamara offered us an important insight into how “crypto for social good” is often done wrong - consider the case Bob:
Bob likes fancy cryptography + Bob hears about police violence = Bob tries to use crypto to solve police violence.
Kamara proposes that while Bob may mean well, he is effectively using marginalized groups to motivate his existing crypto research or products. In other words, he has a hammer and is looking for a “social nail”. Facebook’s Diem project is an example of this where images of marginalized communities in West Africa were used as marketing materials for their Libra protocol. What Bob should do instead is build new technology to solve unique problems faced by underrepresented groups by bringing in experts or working closely with said groups because details, psychological states and the broader context matter - Bob should only design what the experts/communities believe is useful even if the crypto/tech aspects are boring or not what Bob thinks is useful.
Aiming for Policy Impact
Hold up - we just said that “crypto” decides who’s in power so what happens when you inadvertently try to rearrange that power and place it in the hands of the people? In Kamara’s experience, you run into two very real challenges - the lack of alignment in incentives and the lack of funding. Kamara’s team at Brown University worked closely with Senator Wyden in early 2019 to develop an encrypted gun registry. Back then, all gun-owner information was stored on paper and it took up to two weeks to track a single record. The goal was to build a hyperlocal database to be managed by local officials that could be queried by law enforcement but not accessed by the federal or state government (the only way the cryptographers were able to identify these needs was to collaborate closely with the stakeholders!). While the system was successful in achieving its goals, it became evident that the protocol would never be implemented because gun control is a political third rail. Further, traditional funding sources like the NSF or DARPA are not incentivized to fund such crypto projects and faculty stipends alone are not enough to sustain them. Hence, it is wise to pursue an ultimate and realistic goal of “policy impact” when working on crypto for the people.
Educate, Educate, and Educate
Kamara highlights that in the 1960s to 1990s, technology’s impact on society was indirect - we built technology solutions such as compilers and networks that worked in the background to increase productivity. From the 2000s, it is clear that technology directly impacts what we do on a daily basis. However, the crux of the issue is that the computer science curriculum in school has not changed since the 1960s to account for the changing trends in technology usage. We still attempt to produce computer scientists who value STEM over everything else (even though algorithms have found their way everywhere including the criminal justice system) and prizes technical prowess over critical thinking. Kamara iterates that social problems are a fuzzier domain and require more than quantitative skills - it is time to rethink computer science education and broaden it so that we have a younger generation that is better equipped to collaborate with experts and make an impact. At Brown for example, the computer science faculty is actively attempting to educate “critical” computer science students through a curriculum that encourages students to take a mix of core STEM courses and liberal arts electives.