As the hotel cashier doesn’t speak English (and only accepts in-person paper-based check-ins), Burns believes this hotel is “not something a westerner would stay in,” but that’s all part of his plan to keep his tracks covered.
You see, Burns is performing the cryptographic ceremony that privacy-oriented cryptocurrency zcash has become known for: a ritual that involves multiple people around the world destroy the so-called “toxic waste” that zcash’s “trusted setup” creates.
Burns turns off his phone and cuts off all internet connections to his laptop (so no one can track him), then boards the buzzing Hong Kong metro, where no one will suspect him of performing the sacrament – running a secret program given to him by the zcash development team.
He’s brought along two USB sticks, one shaped like SpongeBob and the other like Pikachu – technology now doubling as toys – which he used to install the operating system and a zcash virtual machine. Also with him is a colorful Rubix Cube he picked up at a local market as a key to pull random words from the famous sci-fi novel “Neuromancer.”
Fittingly, perhaps, as the scenario he’s created could just as easily be written in the pages of a William Gibson novel.
At the time, 20 people, including Burns, are moving through similarly strange (if not dystopian) scenarios, displaying not only just how difficult it is to keep things secure and private online, but also how far crypto enthusiasts are willing to go to make sure their next-generation money is.
“It was about two hours in the train running wonky crypto computing software, under one of the most densely populated cities in the world, during rush hour,” Burns, who writes blockchain code for Accenture during the day, told CoinDesk, adding:
“It was a true cypherpunk way to end the trip. 10/10. Would do again.”
Behind the curtain
Even with many of the best-known cryptocurrency communities poring over possible code improvements in an effort to offer users more privacy, zcash’s ceremony – this one named “Powers of Tau” – is perhaps the most unique.
But while the process may seem over-the-top to outsiders, zcash’s cutting edge zk-snarks cryptography, which shields transactions senders, receivers and balances, makes the routine necessary.
Every time the cryptocurrency hard forks, it’ll have to go through a trusted setup, and if someone is able to compromise the “randomness” input into the system by developers, they’ll theoretically be able to exploit the system, possibly printing themselves as much zcash (currently valued at $316 per token) as they’ve ever dreamed of…