ZCash, one of the original privacy-focused cryptocurrencies that obscures all transactions from prying eyes, has a near religious origin story. To create ZCash, you need a number. A really, really big number, which is used to kick off all of the algorithms that create ZCash. The process of making that number, and initializing ZCash, was called “The Ceremony.” The Ceremony involved six people with private keys running a series of complex calculations, uniquely signed by each individual’s key. The end result of The Ceremony is a means by which to prove the veracity of something without revealing any information about it.
Here’s the catch: if a hacker had access to the keys that made ZCash, they would be able to mint new tokens on the blockchain, effectively printing themselves money. And ZCash is so private, no one would ever know if there were new tokens being minted. So, if you were going to perform The Ceremony in a way that is as hack-resistant as possible – hack-resistant enough to make everyone believe it was safe – how might you do it?
Well, here’s what they did. The year is 2016. With a paper map in hand and phones turned off, founder Zooko Wilcox and crew begin recording their journey. They purchase a new computer, called the “computer node,” from which they subsequently remove wifi capability in order to make it “air gapped,” such that the computer is isolated. The group then travels from hotel to hotel looking for a vacancy with ethernet available. Once a suitable hotel room is found, they proceed to remove all electronics from the main room, pull the desk away from the wall to prevent neighbors snooping and recording the sounds the computer might make, and isolate the computer on a desk cleared of all other items. They set up security cameras devoid of radio antennas, which are all in sight of other security cameras to ensure full coverage. This footage is later posted to the internet.
The keyboard is blocked from the sight of all parties, including Zooko, before Zooko randomly mashes keys on the keyboard. The computer then does math to make a bigger, more complex, and more random output from Zooko’s initial input. This is the key. The key is written to a DVD to move it from the air gapped computer to the internet, and is then sent to the other participants. This is repeated multiple times across the other five people, each with computer nodes that take the previous person’s key and make it progressively more random.
This is the birth of ZCash.
This week, we found out that one of these 6 individuals, the pseudonymous John Dobbertin, was actually Edward Snowden. Snowden, the whistleblower who informed the public about the US government’s wide scale surveillance program of its citizens, is now a well known privacy advocate.
In the recent video from ZCash Media which revealed Snowden’s involvement, Snowden made his views on public ledgers like Bitcoin clear when he said “The problem with [Bitcoin] is you can’t have truly free trade unless you have private trade.”
If you want to hear a more detailed explanation of the creation of ZCash, you should listen to RadioLab’s podcast episode with journalist Morgan Peck, who was present for The Ceremony.