Edward Snowden’s Musings on Blockchain and Cryptocurrency

Edward Snowden explains his views of cryptocurrency and blockchain through a series of interviews for McSweeney’s new book titled “The end of Trust”. McSweeney’s is a non-profit publishing house founded in 1988.

Edward Snowden began by explaining blockchain as: “basically just a new kind of database. Imagine updates are always added to the end of it instead of messing with the old, preexisting entries — just as you could add new links to an old chain to make it longer — and you’re on the right track.”

Snowden goes on to explain the basics behind blockchain in layman’s terms. Most people have some idea about what blockchain is, but as the detail adds up, people’s understanding can start to fall down, leaving people confused again. Snowden does an excellent job of breaking the definition down into manageable chunks that are analogous to concepts people already understand.

But most of you probably understand blockchain reasonably well, so we’ll skip past some of Snowden’s blockchain introduction and jump into what he had to say about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.

Snowden explains that where blockchain and cryptocurrency excel is trust, every day you have to trust that your bank balance will be what you expect. For most of us, we live in countries where we can rely on our banks being reliable, but that isn’t the case everywhere. He goes on to explain that Bitcoin, like all currency, is as valuable as long as people are willing to see it as useful. He adds that Bitcoin is also scarce “no more than twenty-one million Bitcoins will ever be created, and seventeen million have already been claimed.”

Snowden states that he likes Bitcoin because it is impartial and can’t be stopped or reverse. “Let’s say Bank of America doesn’t want to process a payment for someone like me. In the old financial system, they’ve got an enormous amount of clout, as do their peers, and can make that happen. If a teenager in Venezuela wants to get paid in a hard currency for a web development gig they did for someone in Paris, something prohibited by local currency controls, cryptocurrencies can make it possible.”

On the topic of criminality and the anonymity Bitcoin provides, Edward Snowden articulated that people shouldn’t be too worried about it: “[cryptocurrency] could actually hurt them, insofar as relying on blockchains will require them to commit evidence of their bad deeds onto computers, which, as we’ve learned in the last decade, government investigators are remarkably skilled at penetrating.”

On the topic of the downsides of cryptocurrency, Snowden provided a balanced answer: “As with all new technologies, there will be disruption and there will be abuse. The question is whether, on balance, the impact is positive or negative. The biggest downside is the inequality of opportunity: these are new technologies that are not that easy to use and still harder to understand.”