Cryptocurrencies Aren't 'Crypto'

As the price of Bitcoin and Ethereum skyrocket, and more and more people who are unfamiliar with technology join in the craze, words start to lose their original and correct meaning.

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Nov 28 2017, 7:44pm

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As a writer, I try to remind myself every day that words matter. For example, when I write about hackers, I try to keep in mind that the word has a controversial history and can have a certain connotation. Similarly, when writing about public figures with important jobs like, say, the President of The United States or a senator, I use their real name, not a racist nickname I made up myself to mock them.

Not everyone is so thoughtful, though. Lately on the internet, people in the world of Bitcoin and other digital currencies are starting to use the word “crypto” as a catch-all term for the lightly regulated and burgeoning world of digital currencies in general, or for the word “cryptocurrency”—which probably shouldn’t even be called “currency,” by the way. (That’s another story.)

Read more: The Bitcoin Is Dead, Long Live Bitcoin

For example, in response to the recent rise of Bitcoin’s price, the CEO of Shapeshift recently tweeted: “don't go into debt to buy crypto at these prices.”

“Crypto Stocks Rise,” read a headline on Tuesday from the trade publication Investor Business Daily.

But the financial blog Seeking Alpha outdid them all by publishing a post titled “Tales From The Crypto.”

Excuse me, “the crypto” what?

Excuse me, “the crypto” what? As someone who has read and written about cryptography for a few years now, and who is a big fan of Crypto, the 2001 book by Steven Levy, this is a problem. “Crypto” does not mean cryptocurrency. The above are just three examples picked at random, but if you don’t believe me, just search “crypto” on Google News or Twitter (heck, even reporters who have written books about bitcoin make this mistake).

If you search the word “crypto” on Google, Merriam-Webster, or the Oxford English Dictionary, however, you’ll find it actually has a very different meaning.

On the internet, “crypto” has always been used to refer to cryptography. Think, for example, the term “Crypto Wars,” which refer to government (originally the US government) efforts to undermine and slow down the adoption of unbreakable communications systems. By the way, the book Crypto isn’t about Bitcoin. It’s about cryptography, and more in particular, about the cryptographers who fought the government in the so-called Crypto Wars.

To be clear, I’m not the only one who is mad about this. Bitcoin and other technologies indeed do use cryptography: all cryptocurrency transactions are secured by a "public key" known to all and a "private key" known only to one party—this is the basis for a swath of cryptographic approaches (known as public key, or asymmetric cryptography) like PGP. But cryptographers say that’s not really their defining trait.

“Most cryptocurrency barely has anything to do with serious cryptography,” Matthew Green, a renowned computer scientist who studies cryptography, told me via email. “Aside from the trivial use of digital signatures and hash functions, it’s a stupid name.”

Emin Gün Sirer, a computer scientist who teaches at Cornell University and is involved in the world of cryptocurrencies, told me in a Twitter direct message that the cryptography in cryptocurrencies is “basic and simple” and just plays “an ancillary role.” The biggest innovation, he added, is the use of blockchains (publicly viewable ledgers that record every transaction since its beginning) as “consensus protocols” and “distributed systems.”

Of course, languages are living, ever-evolving creatures, and unlike in countries like Spain and France, which have official organizations that determine and sanction the official meaning of words, we don’t have something like that for the English language.

“You don't get to make up rules about what words mean (no matter how much we may want to),” Ariel Robinson, who has a degree in cognitive and linguistic sciences and now works for a cybersecurity consultant, told me via Twitter direct message. “Most commonly accepted term and definition wins.”

That’s how the prefix “cyber” has slowly but inevitably become its own word, used as a synonym for “cybersecurity.”

”It’s a stupid name.”

But this is not just a matter of pedantic semantics. As Green explained, cryptography is starting to matter more and more in meatspace, where regular people live, people who might not know about revived 1990s tech policy controversies. Think of the legal battle between Apple and FBI, or popular and damaging malware like ransomware, which often use cryptographic functions to lock files.

“If people know what ‘crypto’ is, they should know it as a real technology—not as some synonym for Bitcoin,” he said.

So if you care about this, please politely correct people who incorrectly use the word “crypto.” Or maybe make fun of it, as Ryan Stortz, a security researcher in New York suggested. In a chat, he joked that he wants to start trolling people by referring to cryptocurrencies as “Block,” short for “blockchain technologies.”

Anyway, what’s the latest from “The Block” today?

Full disclosure: the author of this blog owns small amounts of “crypto”—ahem—cryptocurrencies.

Got a tip? You can contact this reporter securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, OTR chat at lorenzo@jabber.ccc.de, or email lorenzo@motherboard.tv

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