Timothy C. May, cofounder of the Cypherpunks mailing list and author of the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, died last week at his home on Corralitos, Calif. He was 67. Crypto-anarchists put forward the notion that crypto—meaning the power to encrypt and decrypt communications—combined with decentralized computing networks would protect user privacy and enhance individual liberties. May’s writings presaged, and perhaps influenced, the invention of bitcoin.
May’s death was first reported on Saturday in a Facebook post by fellow cypherpunk Lucky Green. “Death appears to be from natural causes pending autopsy,” Green writes. “I.e. Tim did not die in a hail of bullets as so many who didn’t know Tim all that well and largely from his public writings had predicted. 😊” May was a staunch libertarian (“I read [Atlas Shrugged] nonstop for three days, and to the disdain of my teachers in school, I would write articles about the Anti-Trust Act and the evils of the Sherman Act”) and a prolific collector of firearms.
In fall 1988, two years after retiring from Intel a wealthy man, May dashed out the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, which in just under 500 words laid out a prescient vision of the future of digital technology. In the essay, inspired by the work of cryptographer David Chaum, May wrote that developments in computer tech “will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.”
Four years later, May and pals Eric Hughes and Hugh Daniel launched the Cypherpunks mailing list—the name is a play on the cyberpunk genre of fiction—and a movement was born. (May, Hughes, and free-speech activist John Gilmore famously appeared on the cover of the second issue of Wired magazine, in 1993. You can read the accompanying piece here.) Among the many prominent mailing list participants were British cryptographer Adam Back (now CEO of Blockstream) and digital currency trailblazer Wei Dai, both of whose ideas are known to have influenced bitcoin’s pseudonymous inventor Satoshi Nakamoto. The list dissolved after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Nick Szabo, who coined the phrase “smart contracts” and was a member of the Cypherpunks list, remembered May on Twitter:
May was notoriously private, but when he did speak out, he could be unsparing. In October, CoinDesk published, in Q&A form, “a sprawling 30-page evisceration of a technology industry he feels is untethered from reality” that May wrote to mark the 10th anniversary of bitcoin. “I can’t speak for what Satoshi intended, but I sure don’t think it involved bitcoin exchanges that have draconian rules about KYC, AML, passports, freezes on accounts and laws about reporting ‘suspicious activity’ to the local secret police,” May wrote. “There’s a real possibility that all the noise about ‘governance,’ ‘regulation’ and ‘blockchain’ will effectively create a surveillance state, a dossier society.” With typical bluntness, he added: “I think Satoshi would barf.”
Image via YouTube.