The Power of a Secret

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Note: This post is the sole opinion of the author based on knowledge and experience gained at the time. The author recognizes that there may be errors and biases, and welcomes constructive feedback to correct or ameliorate.

We all like secrets. When we possess a secret, it gives us a heightened sense of individuality — that we know some that nobody else knows — giving us a special perspective or an option for the future that only we can exercise — in other words, power.

It turns out, imaginary or not, secrets are fundamental to the power that we have as individuals and institutions in the digital realm. Passwords, codes — those things that grant us or enable us to grant special access to those things that valuable, like bank accounts, emails, or the drafts and finals of our deliberations, the list goes on.

It turns out, that up until, August 1, 1977, secrets had a fundamental fault — we had to share them to use them. That meant you had to trust someone else, and that could eventually lead to the betrayal of your secret, and by extension, you.

In 1977, the public introduction of asymmetric cryptography heralded a new generation of secret capabilities. The first major capability was the establishment of shared secrets across insecure channels enabling encryption between two parties without the requirement of a secret backchannel. The second was enabling commitments using secrets that are not shared, more commonly known as digital signatures.

What had been discovered by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman (and also Jame Ellis), is changing the world as we know it. It’s been only 43 years. Yes, that seems like an ice-age ago, but in the grand scheme of history, it is only a wink.

My concluding remark in this brief post is that you ain’t seen nothing yet (with apologies to BTO). I have been learning about many related schemes, based on that 1977 publicly-announced breakthrough: elliptic curves, homomorphic commitment schemes, proof-of-work, etc.

It’s one thing to understand these as mathematical, but it is another thing to understand what these things might be leveraged as institutional capabilities, either built by an institution itself or leveraged from an ecosystem that lets you keep your own secrets.

That’s the key — keeping your own secrets — keeping those things that give you the power.