Obituary: Hal Finney | The Economist

Robert Hettinga hettinga at
Wed Sep 10 03:33:08 PDT 2014

Hal Finney

AS IT turned out, Hal Finney was not Satoshi Nakamoto. But for a short while, at least, some people thought he might be. “Satoshi Nakamoto” is the most famous non-person on the internet. The name is a pseudonym, meant to hide the shadowy programmer (or programmers) behind Bitcoin, a computerised currency designed to liberate money from the control of any central bank. Speculating about his true identity is a popular pastime in some of the more esoteric corners of the web.

Still, Mr Finney was a good guess. As a cryptographer and a programmer he had the skills, for Bitcoin relies on cryptography to function. Having been an early adopter (he was, with the fabled Mr Nakamoto, a partner in the world’s first ever Bitcoin transaction) he certainly had the pedigree. And he had the beliefs, too. He was one of the original “cypherpunks”, a small, influential band of cryptographers, philosophers and programmers who, in the early 1990s, helped stamp the early internet with its culture of rebelliousness, distrust of government and optimistic belief in the liberating power of technology.

Two decades before Edward Snowden put the subject on front pages the world over, the cypherpunks were discussing how the coming age of the internet would allow governments and companies to pry ever more deeply and easily into the lives of their citizens and customers. But that same computer revolution would also hand ordinary people the power to fight back against the organisations that presumed to run their lives. Until that point, good quality encryption had been something available only to spy agencies and big companies. Computers would give people the power to carve out a mathematically guaranteed refuge from the powers that be, and to have a conversation that was provably, reliably private.

For Mr Finney, who had spent his high-school years imbibing the supercharged libertarianism of Ayn Rand, and who was now earning a living writing video games, that was a heady challenge. He accepted it with gusto. “Here we are faced with the problems of loss of privacy, creeping computerisation, massive databases, more centralisation,” he wrote. “[But] the computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect people, rather than to control them.” His aim was clear: “The work we are doing here, broadly speaking, is dedicated to this goal of making Big Brother obsolete.”

He began helping, unpaid, with a program called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), putting in enough hours that it became a second job. It was well-named: even today, messages scrambled with it are thought to be unbreakable (Mr Snowden used PGP for his e-mail exchanges with the journalists to whom he leaked his documents). In 1991 Phil Zimmermann, PGP’s chief developer, uploaded it to the internet. America’s spies were aghast. Exporting encryption—which was classed as a weapon—was illegal. And here a group of self-proclaimed techno-liberators were proposing to just hand it over to anyone in the world—diplomat, criminal, teenager—who wanted it. When the legal kerfuffle died down, Mr Zimmermann hired Mr Finney as his new company’s second-ever employee.

Suspended animation

For a long time he ran a free “remailer”, a server designed to forward e-mail anonymously, no questions asked, to anyone in the world. Whose business was it, after all, what people wanted to send to each other, except the sender and the recipient? His interests extended beyond privacy. He was fascinated by the sorts of futures that technology might unlock, speculating about everything from how morals evolve in rich societies to when clean energy might finally displace fossil fuels. Away from the screen, he was chatty and gregarious, a keen skier and runner.

He had to stop in 2009, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). The illness gradually paralyses its victims, but, with characteristic logic, Mr Finney pointed out that it was not a death sentence—even when those muscles necessary for breathing gave out, life could carry on with the aid of a mechanical ventilator. He was surprised, he said, to discover that most people with the disease “chose” death instead. After all, MND robs sufferers only of their bodies, not their minds, and for him it was the mind that mattered. His interests went beyond computers and coding, to sociology, psychology and how technology might improve society. As long as there was a way to communicate with the outside world—even if it was only by having a computer interpret the twitchings of a facial muscle—he wanted to endure.

When even that became difficult, he put a final plan into action. In accordance with his wishes, he was disconnected from his ventilator. As soon as he had been declared legally dead, technicians from a firm called Alcor froze his body in liquid nitrogen. He became one of a few hundred people who have elected to have their bodies stored until medicine advances to the point where it can safely revive them and cure their original ailments. It sounds (and is) science-fictional, and Mr Finney was under no illusions about the prospects of waking up again. But placing his faith in a technology that has yet to be invented was a rational gamble for a committed techno-optimist. And besides, a slim hope is better than none at all.

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