Privacy Coins vs Nation State Crypto and the War for the Soul of the World

A mother walks into the supermarket to buy baby milk but the iris scanner spots her and sends a message to her glasses: “Currency controls in effect today, funds partially frozen.  Please reduce spending.”  She checks her smart glasses display and sees that her bank balance is the same but her “available to spend balance” is now zero and she can’t buy supplies for her child or groceries to eat. 


Welcome to the Waves of Crypto Summer Series – Part One


A man gets on a train and tries to pay for the ticket with his phone as usual.  A message pops up “Account frozen, please step off the bus Mr. Smith, Real-ID x71827731127908.”

A mother walks into the supermarket to buy baby milk but the iris scanner spots her and sends a message to her glasses: “Currency controls in effect today, funds partially frozen.  Please reduce spending.”  She checks her smart glasses display and sees that her bank balance is the same but her “available to spend balance” is now zero and she can’t buy supplies for her child or groceries to eat. 

A grandfather totters to his self-driving car but there’s a message on the window in holographic light: “Vehicle disabled. On the bus at 5:15 PM, Feb 26, you came into contact with known carriers of COVID-26. Please return to your house for voluntary 20 day quarantine.”

If that all sounds like science-fiction it won’t take long before it’s science fact.  The deep roots of it are already here.  

In Hong Kong I fill a disposable Octopus card with cash at a quickie mart and tap it to ride the metro or buy groceries.  So many people in China pay for things with their smart phone that even homeless people have QR codes.  The latest coronavirus has brought the Chinese surveillance state out of the shadows.  

“When the man from Hangzhou returned home from a business trip, the local police got in touch. They had tracked his car by his license plate in nearby Wenzhou, which has had a spate of coronavirus cases despite being far from the epicenter of the outbreak. Stay indoors for two weeks, they requested.

After around 12 days, he was bored and went out early. This time, not only did the police contact him, so did his boss. He had been spotted near Hangzhou’s West Lake by a camera with facial recognition technology, and the authorities had alerted his company as a warning.”

And if you’re feeling smug because you live in a democracy, don’t fool yourself. Every government watches their citizens with every tool they can dream up.  Democratic governments are just better at hiding it.  When the US government got caught in the early 2000’s with the Total Information Awareness program, and congress shut them down, they just renamed everything and did it anyway with black budgets.  Every single NSA tool that got leaked by Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) hackers traces its roots directly back to the TIA program.

The rise of digital technology, the Internet and narrow artificial intelligence have given governments and companies unprecedented eyes into all of our lives.  Google Home and Alexa record conversations and moments of intimacy that were once private.  Facial recognition cameras scan every face that goes by.  License plate readers tag every car as they burns down the highway.  

But one technology, more than any other, will give governments near total control over our lives.

Nation state cryptocurrency.

It’s All Right, We Know We’re You’ve Been

The last few years were amazing but turbulent for me and I couldn’t trade as much as I wanted or focus on the crypto space as deeply.  That’s a good thing.  With distance came new perspective and insights.  Sometimes when you’re too close to something you miss the bigger picture.  Now that things have settled down I can turn my eyes back to the misty swirls of the future.

There’s one feature of cryptocurrencies that I’ve always thought was a niche feature, something only important to the crypto community but that I now see as the killer feature of open source, decentralized, crypto: 


Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always love privacy coins, like Monero or Zcash, and I’ve written about them extensively in articles like Why Privacy Coins Will Rule the Next Bull Run.  But I’ve always thought the average person will never care about privacy.

I’ve had good reason for that belief.  

Again and again I’ve heard “I’ve got nothing to hide” from regular folks everywhere.  It’s one of the worst arguments against privacy and yet it’s still the most widely used. Glenn Greenwald, in a famous Ted Talk on privacy said, if you’ve got nothing to hide just give me the password to your private email.  I’ll go through it for three months and post anything interesting I find online.  Still got nothing to hide?

Privacy isn’t about criminality, a distinction lost on way too many people.  Sure, criminals use privacy and secrecy.  So do militaries, governments, corporations, religions, financial institutions, and everyday people going about their private lives in bedrooms and bars everywhere.  

You don’t get dressed in front of the window.  You draw the curtains because you don’t want everyone looking at you naked.  You have opinions that you share only with true friends and lovers.  This is natural and right. 

When it comes to privacy tech, it’s just not that widely used.  

I’ve got four friends on Signal and 1000s who only want to use Facebook Messenger which I refuse to use.  My ex-wife always chose our chat apps based on their stickers, even if I told her the privacy was much stronger somewhere else.  Security conscious people use Signal or Wire but everyone else uses WhatsApp even as authorities are rallying to try to force Facebook to build backdoors into the platform.  

And they’re not using WhatsApp because of its privacy or because it’s feature rich.  They’re using it because everyone else is using it. The average person just does not care about privacy today.

But I think in the not too distant future this is going to change and change fast.

There’s one reason.  They will feel the pain of having no privacy at all, anywhere, ever.

The Eye of Sauron is Upon You 

Governments once laughed at cryptocurrency or feared it.  They dismissed the technology as useless or just for drug dealers and criminals.  

Now China stands poised to release a state sponsored cryptocurrency, with the backing of their big tech companies.  When president Xi Jinping called on the country to accelerate blockchain adoption and become a global leader in the technology the crypto markets cheered. 

Nobody should be cheering.  When centralized powers look at blockchains they don’t look at it through the lens of freedom and independence and self-sovereignty.  They see what they always see:


Blockchains can be a two way mirror, a surveillance state right in your pocket.  

Welcome to the panopticoin.  

They seen open ledgers as a way to spy on every transaction.  They see the ability to escrow your keys and lock up your funds with the push of a button as the ultimate in absolute and total dominance.  And that is exactly what they will build.  A digital prison for all mankind.

As nation state cryptocurrencies take hold and ripple around the globe, the information and analytics will flow back in a constant stream to the watchful eyes of Big Brother.  Think about how often you use money throughout the day and what that money says about you.  Everywhere you go.  Everything you do. Everyone you know or sleep with will be the government’s business now. Everything you buy will form a complete digital footprint that can be poked, prodded, cross-checked and analyzed by invisible eyes. 

That kind of information is utterly irresistible to centralized powers.  It’s like heroin.  The more they get, the more they want.

It won’t take long before every major government on Earth has their own cryptocurrency standard competing for world dominance.  China is just first to the punch but the US will not sit back and take that lying down.  Neither will Russia or the EU.  Even small countries will see their chance to rise to global dominance by building a truly revolutionary crypto that gives them power they could only dream of at their size and scale.

Once nation states roll out their digital money it will be too late for open, decentralized cryptocurrencies.  Freedom coins will die a fast death unless they can scale and catch on much more widely.  Private, open money needs a killer app and they need it fast.  If they don’t come up with it soon, it will be game over. 

Governments are already rushing to destroy anonymity in private money, looking to outlaw mixers and other privacy preserving technologies.  

In no time, cash will be illegal.  

It’s the last loophole of anonymity in the world and governments have already tried to close that door, step by step, inch by inch.  Cash is an analog technology.  And analog technologies are always a loophole for digital tech.  You might not be able to rip the DRM off an audio file but you can always play it through a speaker and record it that way.  The analog hole is absolute.  Nature hates DRM.  Analog tech is the original privacy technology.  And in the modern surveillance world, loopholes will not be tolerated.  

The cash ban will happen slowly and then all at once.

Australia banned cash purchases for anything over $10,000.   India tried to ban cash but had to walk it back because they went too hard and too fast and shocked the system before it was ready.  If you think that’s the end of it, you’re wrong.  Nation states will learn from India’s failure and they’ll do it better next time. They’ll roll out state sponsored crypto slowly, make it easy to use, tie it to a digital identity, first as a “voluntary” effort and then make it all mandatory once its surreptitiously inserted into everyone’s lives.

The Turning of the Screw and the Tipping Point

All of this is a dystopian nightmare.  And you should be afraid.  Very afraid.

But nature has an escape hatch.  If you put too much pressure on something it breaks.  

Rigid control leads to brittleness. It crushes creativity and eventually the control collapses.  There’s a reason that five of the ten deadliest conflicts in history happened in China.  China has a way of exercising absolute control for decades or centuries before that pressure becomes too much and it erupts in a brutal and violent rebellion.  When there is no way to vent pressure the only way to vent it is an explosion.  

For every action there is a reaction and I expect the reaction to be the explosion of privacy based platforms and non-state sponsored cryptos as a parallel economic operating system for the world.  

The most cutting edge parts of the US government know this too, even if they won’t often admit it openly.  The US Empire was built on an anonymous currency, the US Dollar and individual freedom was the foundation of the US Constitution, even if we’re slowly forgetting that now.  DARPA wants to build a privacy platform based on zero knowledge proofs.  Whatever they build eventually escapes into the wild.  The Fed chairman also admitted that “a ledger where you know everybody’s payments is not something that would be particularly attractive in the context of the US.”

It will take time for these privacy platforms to mature and grow.  The community still needs to solve scale and ease of use and build a killer app.  But as the governments build their state sponsored digital money, the community will be working too, sometimes at the grey edges of society, working in secret to protect themselves from the eye of Sauron.  There’s a reason most of the major privacy protocol developers prize their privacy.  The easiest way to stop development is to go after them and they know it.

But no matter how hard governments push they won’t stamp out privacy technology.  If they push too hard the tech will just develop in the shadows until it’s ready to burst out into the wider world once more.  In fact, the harder they push the faster an alternative will grow.  

There’s an old Chinese proverb: 韬光养晦. Hide your light, nourish in darkness. 

And once the privacy coins are ready, the desire for them will come not from the rabid crypto fans and the privacy advocates. 

It will come from everyday people. 

All of this will accelerate not because the crypto community will want it but because the average person will wake up in a world where cash is illegal and the government automatically turns off a regular person’s money because they triggered some AI on the backend and then it will explode.  It probably won’t be a physical rebellion of blood and violence.  It will likely be a bloodless coup, a virtual one that overturns the ability of state sponsored crypto to dominate everyday life in every way.  It will start small, when regular people realize they’ve had enough.  Their money was frozen one too many times.  A family they knew couldn’t buy diapers because of currency controls. An aunt couldn’t get on the bus because the AI watchdogs were glitching again and the hotlines were jammed for three days. A father couldn’t get to work and lost his job. 

It will pick up steam in churches as evangelists take to the lecturn and talk about how the good people of their flock can’t buy bread and give to their community.  They’ll talk about the mother whose child died because she couldn’t buy medicine and couldn’t ride the bus to the store because of a glitch.  They’ll talk about the church that had its funds frozen for a month because it tripped a terrorist alert algorithm.

Perhaps these private cryptos find a way to sneak over official channels, through a door that can’t be closed, the way that peer to peer sharing apps appeared right under the noses of the music industry and changed their business model forever before they knew what hit them.  Suddenly a new app that people pass among themselves, outside of official app stores, phone to phone and smart shades to smart shades, takes off and finds a billion users in a year.  It doesn’t use the Internet but hops from citizen to citizen in an onion network, over blue tooth. It lets people chat and send money and do loans to each other.  There’s no way to stop it and people want it, so they will have it.  And when they want privacy they will increasingly default to the people’s app.

When the people really want something, eventually the people win, no matter how much time and money the government wastes trying to change the forces of human nature.  The war on drugs was very effective: at wasting trillions of dollars and accelerating drug use.  It made not one single dent on human nature and people’s desire to get high.  And now thirty years later, the pendulum is swinging back and the evil weed of Marijuana is increasingly mainstream and legal.

Or maybe it will take a disaster for people to wake up, like another World War where millions of people die.  That has a powerful effect on people’s consciousness too.  They see what it’s like to have all their freedoms stripped away and they want them back more than they want sunshine and oxygen.   The problem is eventually the generation that experienced that disaster dies off and the generations after it that knew only peace don’t understand the prison that is being built around them until it is too late.

That’s what’s happening now.  People are losing their cultural memory of having no privacy and what it’s like to live through devastating pain. The people who lived through WWII are increasingly dead and gone.  Today we’ve never lived through something horrific that eats the world.  

But I don’t think it will take a real revolution.  A quiet one might just be enough.  

It will be a virtual war.  Privacy versus surveillance. 

The pressure that state sponsored crypto will put on the world will be too much.  There will be no pressure release value.

Until there is. 

Whenever the pendulum swings too far in one direction, there’s only one thing that can happen next.  It must swing back to the other.


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