The cryptography and information security experts who read my blog probably wonder from time to time, “Why furries though?” which I’ve spent ample time answering and hopefully don’t need to cover here.
The furries who read my blog might be wondering, “Why cryptography though?”
That’s a good question, actually.
In order to understand why I feel it’s important to write about cryptography, it probably helps to know what cryptography even is, some of the basic history of the field, and how it intersects with other areas of interest to the LGBTQIA+ community.
What Is Cryptography?
Let’s dispense with formalities for now. You can look up the dictionary definition if you want; it’s not helpful.
Cryptography is the application of math to provide security guarantees.
These properties vary depending on how it’s used.
- If you want to transmit or store data that remains confidential to anyone who doesn’t possess a secret, you can encrypt the data with a key.
- If you want to prove that you possess some fact without revealing what you possess, you can use an authentication protocol (with–in this case–asymmetric keys).
- The combinatorics of the use-cases for cryptography are astounding.
(Art by Swizz.)
The counterpart to cryptography–called cryptanalysis–involves using mathematical techniques to defeat the security of a cryptographic algorithm or protocol.
The field that encompasses both cryptography and cryptanalysis is called cryptology. We used to be able to abbreviate cryptology to “crypto”, but then a rather sketchy crowd appropriated that shorthand to mean “cryptocurrency” and we cannot have nice things.
There are a lot of different mental models for learning cryptography.
Some try to tackle the subject historically–starting with simple substitution ciphers and working their way to Vigenere ciphers and then plunging headfirst into number theory. See also: Most college courses that broach the subject.
Others try to summarize the common components into a relatable taxonomy.
Another effective approach is to assume your audience has a rudimentary understanding of computer programming and/or formal logic–at least enough to where the concept of an XOR isn’t completely foreign–and then build their intuition from there.
The good news is, unless you find this subject interesting enough to one day make jokes about traces of Frobenius, you don’t need to actually learn cryptography to understand and appreciate its importance to society.
A Brief History of Cryptology
Once upon a time, literacy was a privilege of the upper class and encryption was a technique used by for exercising state power with couriers.
After a while, the use of couriers fell out of favor, but encryption remained an important component of state secrecy.
A British mathematician named Alan Turing discovered flaws in the cryptography used by Nazi Germany and was rewarded for his hard work by being sentenced to chemical castration and likely driven to suicide by a cyanide-laced apple, all because he was gay–one of the minorities that the Nazis tried to exterminate.
This dynamic of cryptographic advancements being a munition–an instrument of state power to be wielded against competitor nations–continued through the 1970’s.
And then Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, and Ralph Merkle invented public key cryptography, and nothing would ever be the same for the ruling class.
Public-key cryptography–also known as asymmetric cryptography–empowers users to negotiate symmetric cryptographic keys over an untrusted network (Diffie-Hellman) and decide who to trust (Digital Signatures and Public Key Infrastructure); potentially even without the government’s blessing.
Sidenote: It’s because of public key cryptography that e-commerce would one day become a possibility.
However, this annoyed the shit out of the NSA and their traitor friends in the other Five Eyes nations. They attempted to lobby Congress to get cryptographic research classified as a munition–and succeeded, for a little while.
At one point, the NSA tried to standardize a “Clipper chip” for backdoored encryption so they could spy on all domestic communications, and that blew up in a Blaze of glory.
And then, to top it all off, cryptographer and famous software abandoner Daniel J. Bernstein decided to troll them by asking:
- DJB: “Can I share this encryption scheme?”
- U.S. government: “No, that’s a munition.”
- DJB: “But it’s actually a hash function [with a built in counter, that can be turned into a stream cipher].”
- U.S. government: “…IDK?”
- DJB: “Can I publish the source code for my encryption scheme online?”
- U.S. government: “No, that’s a munition and needs to be export controlled!”
- DJB: “Can I publish it in a book, in OCR-compatible font?”
- U.S. government: “Well, hmmm…”
- Court: “First Amendment”
- U.S. government: “Dammit!”
- DJB: “If I can publish it in a book, but not online, is that not a violation of the First Amendment?”
- U.S. government: “Y’know what? Let’s just dismiss this case before we gain an unfavorable precedent that lets people challenge our power in the future.”
- Court, being generally complicit in U.S. imperialism: “LOL OK”
- DJB: “K then I’m just gonna do what I want”
Look, I’m clearly taking creative liberties with this retelling of the history, but that’s essentially how it happened. If you want a detailed account, talk to the people involved. (They’re all still alive–and active on Twitter!) Or talk to a historian who’s already interviewed them all.
And then the Snowden revelations happened.
You should read up on those, especially MUSCULAR, the NSA’s practice of passing secret evidence conducted through their illegal spying campaigns to their criminal friends at the DEA to use with parallel construction–often to target minorities, and their backdooring of cryptography standards in their recommendations to NIST.
At some point along the way, secure messaging was invented and then promptly discarded by everyone who doesn’t use Signal or WhatsApp (because Telegram has stickers!).
And finally, the U.S. Department of Justice engaged in a lot of rhetorical sabre-rattling over the use of encryption by the people they want to commit human rights violations against, using scary-sounding euphemisms like “Going Dark” and insisting they don’t want a backdoor, but a “secure Golden Key” into everyone’s private communications.
And that’s roughly where we are today.
Why Cryptography Is Important to Our Communities
Cryptography uses the laws of mathematics–rather than the laws of a particular nation–to ensure the security of our communications. Cryptography research has the potential to empower communities to better withstand the oppression of hateful regimes.
Such regimes are quick to target the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, people with disabilities, and other minorities. Furries don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of being overlooked.
But it’s so much more than that!
In an increasingly online world, cryptography is a necessary cornerstone of the privacy we need to allow queer people to safely explore their identities.
So, Where Do Furries Come In?
Have you seen the explosion of furry activity in VRChat during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Since virtually all furry meet-ups and conventions have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, the furry experience has been increasingly virtual.
However, this shared experience is a bit muted, and the privacy concerns are only recently being talked about.
Why Blog About Cryptography as a Furry?
A lot of reasons, really; most of which you can discern from the previous sections of this blog post.
But mostly, I just find cryptography interesting, so that’s what I find myself writing about when left to my own devices. (And although my job involves cryptography, I as a rule don’t blog here about work-related topics.)
Ideally, I’d one day find that my writing helped other queer/furry folks discover a passion for computer security and cryptography and develop highly sought-after technical skills.
Hell, earlier this year, I even wrote an entire series on how to get a job in technology with no prior experience–for as close to $0 as possible and made it shamelessly furry. (Mostly to make bigots uncomfortable with the material, and therefore not benefit from it.)
Also, if the math pun in the title (“Solving for Y”) hadn’t dawned on you already, welcome to the land of puns and furry art.