Jeffrey Paul: Unstoppable Payments Are Coming.

Jeffrey Paul

Unstoppable Payments Are Coming.
13 February 2022
( 1506 words, approximately 8 minutes reading time. )

Unstoppable payments are coming. Society must integrate this inconvenient fact.

There’s a protest going on in Canada at the moment. It may or may not have transformed into a riot. I don’t know enough about it to know if I agree with the protesters or not, and I don’t care if you have an opinion on the protest either.

The protest needed money for supplies and practical logistic needs. They raised a bunch from sympathetic people all over the world (and especially the USA) on GoFundMe. GoFundMe, not wanting the controversy associated with its brand, censored the fundraising effort on their site. Then the funds were then frozen by a Canadian judge, post-donation, pre-disbursement-to-protesters. This is, of course, only a possible situation on a centralized platform that is in custody of the money as a middleman.

There are a lot of opinions about whether or not you should be free to give money to whomever you want. I have my own (somewhat extreme) opinions here which longtime friends and readers can probably guess at, but they’re not relevant to the point of this post. You no doubt have your own opinions as well, which I also ask you to set aside for a moment.

The protesters switched to using a less well-known and less willing-to-censor-due-to-controversy fundraising website called GiveSendGo, at this moment “down for maintenance” after being hacked today.

Hacktivism used to be a thing of which I was almost always personally supportive, but in the last decade we’ve seen an emergence of hacktivists of all ideological stripes, including pro-military, violent nationalistic types, so you can no longer remotely infer any semblance of righteousness based solely on “able to engage in hacktivism”. (I think that the #OpISIS effort by Anonymous to get CloudFlare to start arbitrary censorship of customers in 2015 was the first time I noticed this state of affairs.)

Today we have learned that some people with some strong opinions about the protest in Canada have breached GiveSendGo’s private databases and have defaced their website and are sending out an archive file containing tens of thousands of names of donors to journalists, although it would appear that the data was probably already semipublic due to some pre-existing clownshoes incompetence by the administrators at GiveSendGo.

I told you that story to tell you about the future. I don’t have strong opinions one way or another about the protest, or about these specific payment/fundraising systems, or this hack. (I care a lot about the concept of deplatforming in general, but that’s, again, a topic for another time.)

I think that rather than celebrating or condemning this, we should prepare, both emotionally on a personal level, as well as a whole gestalt of a society, for what will happen when the inevitable occurs: totally censorship-resistant payments that even governments cannot meaningfully stop (only hinder/make more inconvenient).

This has already occurred, so we know unambiguously that it is coming. In the next ten years they will be available widely to everyone who wants them who has uncensored internet access.

The integration of Mobilecoin with Signal is a great example. The wallets are pseudonymous and can be paid without using Signal, the Mobilecoin blockchain itself has transactional privacy built in (who is paying whom is not public), and it uses Signal’s existing end-to-end messaging encryption and privacy features to arrange for coordinating payments between parties, such that the service itself has no idea what anyone’s balances are or who is paying whom. You simply can’t stop payments to anyone on the system without stopping the whole system. Even if you ban a single user from Signal based on their phone number, every user can still pay the payment address directly, and those addresses can be easily disseminated from person to person because the end-to-end encrypted nature of Signal makes it impossible to selectively censor messages.

Regardless of how you feel about Signal, or Mobilecoin, or Signal’s integration with Mobilecoin, or cryptocurrency in general: this is a demo of the fact that the concept of end-user-accessible, completely private payments is technically possible, and indeed more than technically possible: it exists today, albeit with a tiny userbase. It’s only a matter of time now until that technology (whether Signal or a competitor) is widely available and evenly distributed to everyone who wants to use it.

Before you go there: the Mobilecoin blockchain does not use the extremely energy intensive Proof-Of-Work (PoW) system used by most popular blockchains that has become such a point of complaint against them; not that that is relevant to the point of this post, just that I think it would be remiss in introducing the chain without mentioning that fact.

You may, of course, think that Signal should be banned from the App Store. Perhaps it will be over this. Schneier thinks that adding this functionality to Signal was “an incredibly bad idea”, presumably for this reason. It’s a legitimate claim that broadly enabling private payments may actually hinder their abilility to broadly enable private messaging. From a technical standpoint, however, there is no difference whatsoever, and Schneier should be smart enough to recognize this.

Now that privacy-focused cryptocurrencies exist, there is no way to have private and uncensorable end-to-end encrypted messaging without also simultaneously enabling private payments. Payment coordination is a subset of messaging.

In such a case where it’s yanked from the totalitarian, censorship-happy Apple App Store and unavailable on iPhones, people needing such payments functionality will switch to or augment with a platform that allows sideloading of apps. The most popular smartphone OS in the world is such a platform.

You may, of course, think that use and operation of such completely unstoppable payment infrastructure should be prohibited by law as it eliminates existing government/legal control over who can pay whom and why. They could outlaw such payments, just as they successfully outlawed cocaine and speeding, but, critically, that doesn’t actually stop them from happening; it only introduces penalties for people when caught.

The cat is now out of the bag.

Fact is, though, it is now technically feasible, and the only effective counters from the authoritarians who would stop it in advance are aggressive censorship of apps that implement it (which is, in short order, any end-to-end encrypted messenger), or generalized internet network censorship that blocks certain protocols like these sorts of p2p payment systems. This is the sort of infrastructure that China and Russia have built into the internet in their countries.

It’s only a matter of time before these fundraising efforts aren’t going to operate on trivially shutdown centralized websites, and anyone can pay anyone they want, in almost any country they want, without anyone being able to stop them.

What does our world look like, then? Is that okay? Is that terribly bad? What are the potential upsides? What are the failure modes? Think beyond throwing out terrifying thought-terminating cliche set pieces like “financing terrorism” and consider down to the actual practical details what true global any-to-any payments enable.

I think that a lot of people don’t like to confront certain difficult facts, such as the one that there are many things that the government and entire “justice system” cannot actually meaningfully control. Use of drugs, the drug trade, and the sex trade stand as shining examples of the fact that there are many things that governments simply cannot actually stop with the tools they usually use for such things.

I don’t think the US, for example, wants to go full Great Firewall-style internet censorship (they didn’t for Bitcoin, for example), so that leaves only practically ineffective methods of attempting to prevent or dissuade determined users from using this new technology.

It didn’t stop people’s taste for liquor during prohibition, and it didn’t stop people’s taste for hookers and blow then or now.

My own personal theory (possibly biased due to my general optimism regarding human societies, borne out by the progression of civilization the last 100 years or so) is that the threat of terrorism and violence is massively overblown (“if it bleeds, it leads”…) and that this will ultimately be a net benefit to all people who have access to such systems. Being able to beam cash to anyone you want, instantly, privately, and without any third party applying second-guessing to what you are allowed to do with your own cash is insanely powerful stuff, and I think like with most sharp tools unleashed upon society to wield as they see fit, the benefits to people will massively outweigh the harms. We’ve seen this again and again. I’m not sold on the idea that the reason terrorists don’t more often do mass murder is simply a lack of financing.

It’s also possible that I’m missing something! My optimism is sometimes misplaced. You are encouraged to directly answer the questions posed above, via the link below.

Community comments on this post can be made and read on the BBS. All are welcome to participate.

About The Author

Jeffrey Paul is a hacker and security researcher living in Berlin and the founder of EEQJ, a consulting and research organization.