In the opening sequence of the 2006 film “Casino Royale,” James Bond earns his rank by murdering a fellow agent who was caught selling state secrets to the enemy. This is a leak in a very cold-war sense — there is an Enemy, and there are secrets of Real Military Importance, and the leaker is definitely the Bad Guy.
Recent security breaches in the US government have had a different flavor altogether. Manning and Snowden both released large amounts of sensitive information, but they released it to the public, not to a well-defined enemy. And they were motivated, not by financial incentive, but by an abstract moral belief, and a perceived duty to the people. Snowden wasn’t a double agent, he was a whistleblower.
It is in this climate that Amir Taaki and Peter Todd are launching PayPub, a new Bitcoin-based app designed to encourage more such leaks in the future, through the use of distributed, cryptographically secure financial incentives. The model of leaking implied by PayPub is an odd fusion of cold-war treason and modern whistleblowing. The idea is to help would-be Snowdens overcome their reticence to sacrifice their own well-being for the greater good, and to allow anonymous private citizens to put bounties on the things they’d most like to know about their own government. Of course, along with this comes all the unpleasantness of treason for money, and likely whistleblowers with questionable motivation leaking things (like the identities of active field agents) that maybe ought to remain a secret.
The technology behind PayPub is a clever cryptographic hat trick: Users can leak a collection of documents, encrypted in such a way that only Bitcoin payments to specific addresses can decrypt each piece, allowing them to put data out and collect the bounty on it effortlessly, anonymously, and securely. The software is still an early, cumbersome build that operates exclusively through a command line interface that sits on the very far side of user-friendly. Still, it’s open-source, and the creators hope that other software developers will help create a shiny, easy-to-use GUI.
One of the developers of PayPub, Amir Taaki, is already notable in the cryptanarchist community for his work on DarkWallet, an automated Bitcoin-laundering tool for keeping Bitcoin transactions private as they move across the network. Still, PayPub isn’t just an anarchist tool for destroying state secrets. Its creators point out that the software could also be used to distribute music, books, and movies for money, as a kind of cryptographic Kickstarter.
Whatever you think of the ethics of the platform, if Bitcoin has taught us anything, it’s that cryptographic technologies exist to connect needs with means, however morally dubious they may be. If there’s a market for this kind of service, it will play a role in world politics going forward, and there’s very little to be done about it now.