Meet Moxie Marlinspike, the anarchist who brings us the encryption


This time may not be so far away. “I don’t really want to do that with the rest of my life,” Marlinspike said. “Ultimately, you have to declare victory.”

But cypherpunks like Marlinspike – let’s be honest – haven’t won the crypto wars yet. In fact, war can be unmanageable by either side. If the rise of end-to-end encrypted messaging enables the kind of benign breach of law Marlinspike preached, sooner or later it will protect some indefensible crimes as well. And that means every technological move toward privacy will be met with a legal response aimed at bringing the balance back to surveillance: weakening their security measures and rewriting their code to help cops, as the FBI has demanded of them. Apple. Some form of crypto backdoor could even be built in secret. And Congress is still threatening to push forward legislation that could outright ban user-controlled encryption.

But these legal and political battles may not belong to Marlinspike. “He definitely idealizes being an amateur,” says one particularly outspoken friend. “He likes to give up once he’s an expert. Marlinspike, she says, seeks “zero point, when you have nothing to lose, when you have no property, no lover, nothing to hold you back.”

I remember this underlying fuss from the last night I spent with Marlinspike, at a Sunday night screening of Hold fast, hosted by a sailing club at the Berkeley Marina. As her doc plays in front of a crowd of a few dozen, we sit in the back next to a woodstove, with a spring storm rocking the bay behind the window behind us.

At the start of the film, the narrative sets off on a tangent, telling the story of Bernard Moitessier, whom Marlinspike reverently describes as a sailing mystic. In 1969, Moitessier won the Golden Globe, a solo yacht race around the world. Moitessier, a monk-like eccentric, didn’t even carry a radio, but instead used a slingshot to throw film cartridges containing messages at nearby ships. With Moitessier set to finish ahead of his rivals in Plymouth, England, he sent out a message rejecting the competition and explaining that he would rather just continue sailing to the Pacific Islands. “I keep going because I’m happy at sea,” the note read, “and maybe because I want to save my soul.”

At the end of the screening, the lights come on and Marlinspike answers questions. A middle-aged woman asks him what he’s doing now, nine years after the film’s release. Along with many other people in this audience, she only knows him as Moxie Marlinspike, the Rogue Sailor, and not as a cryptographer.

Marlinspike takes a second to think it over, as if he had never really thought about it before. “I don’t know,” he said finally, sighing with what looks like genuine uncertainty. “Maybe I should go back to cheap sailing. “

The crowd laughed at Marlinspike’s spectacle of self-effacing confusion. But he seems to mean what he says. And above their heads, out the window, beyond the bay, is the Pacific Ocean: dark, unfamiliar and inviting.

Andy Greenberg (@a_greenberg) wrote about the construction of an AR-15 rifle not found in issue 23.08.

This article appears in the August issue.


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