My grandfather, known to me as ‘ye-ye’, was born into a large well-to-do merchant class family in the early 1930’s during a troubled time in China. A decade after the dissolution of dynastic imperialism that lasted over 2000 years, China in the 1920’s was fighting to find its identity among a massive cultural shift, warlordism, and civil war in an increasingly global world.
Tensions were brewing while my ye-ye grew up in what he describes as an idyllic childhood despite unsettling clues of a quietly turbulent and changing time. He was the eldest of six siblings born to a mother of bound feet and a successful merchant father who would disappear most afternoons to frequent opium dens, or as he called them, ‘tea’ houses.
Thousands of years of changing dynastic rules ingrained cautions of inflationary currency in Chinese psyche and most people during this time turned to gold as savings as well as an informal medium of exchange. My ye-ye remembers a large wooden cabinet in the main sitting room of his house where a hidden trap door was installed by his father. In it held the majority of his family’s wealth in gold and silver — the rest was hidden in the ground under his mother’s wooden wardrobe.
(At the time of my ye-ye’s childhood, a ‘tael’ of gold could purchase 40 bags of fine flour at 40 lbs each — towards the peak of civil unrest, a passage on boat from the mainland to Taiwan could cost up to 10 taels of gold.)
By the time my ye-ye turned eighteen, the Japanese were retreating and the temporary truce between two clashing political ideals was falling apart. The Second Japo-Sino war impoverished both sides — while the Kuomintang (KMT) increased inflation to pay its debts from civil war funding, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was being energized by the masses of peasants looking for a revolution.
Driving the rhetoric of the communist cause was the underlying distrust and bitterness of wealth held by the upper classes for centuries and the promise from the CPC to redistribute lands to the people once the war was over. Lands owned by families like my ye-ye’s.
Whatever future he had envisioned for himself disappeared when it became too dangerous to assume his own identity. It was decided that he and his siblings would disband and assume new identities for their own safety. His father removed five taels of gold from his hidden cabinet and his mother hid them in my ye-ye’s clothes and shoes. They sent him off to Qingdao — a relatively neutral zone at the time. He still remembers the feeling of the gold yuanbao wedged in between his toes and the lump he felt on his underarm from being sewn into the lining of his shirt.
Once he arrived in Qingdao and situations seemed bleak, my ye-ye gave his five gold yuanbao meant for his survival to his cousin and decided he was going to abandon his home, his family, his country. He has since rebuilt his life twice, once as a refugee in Taiwan and again as an immigrant in Canada. It would be 50 years until he returned to his ancestral home — he never saw his mother again.
From China to Zimbabwe to present day Venezuela, this worst-case scenario isn’t an exceptional story — economic and political refugees are still fleeing oppressive regimes today often with heavy financial costs in exchange for freedom.
A formal authorization or proposition, a decree.
From hyperinflation to aggressive capital controls, there are countless examples throughout history where governments have abused their control of fiat money to limit free movement of people and their value. In times of war, fiat is often used as a last resort to fund military activity, destroying shareholder value in the process. Digital fiat also operates as a “system-of-control”, a tool for governments to seize or freeze their people’s value without notice.
Few economic refugees want to transport their net worth in the currency produced by the very government from which they are trying to flee. Gold has emerged as a safe store of value when fiat has failed for a number of reasons, including its acceptability, durability, high stock to flow ratio, uncensorability, and its largely decentralized production and processing. That said, like cash, gold exists in physical matter and as a result is vulnerable to theft and confiscation.
Bitcoin too thrives in low trust environments. Being native to a permissionless digital network means bitcoin is completely intangible, weightless, invisible, impossible to censor, and difficult to confiscate. Bitcoin may be the monetary instrument supporting the highest level of individual financial agency.
Despite excelling as a method of developing monetary sovereignty and transporting wealth in economic crises, bitcoin falls short in a few areas.
If recognized by regimes or thieves, public addresses, private keys, backup seed phrases, or hardware wallets can be seen as a notable sign of wealth, making anyone vulnerable to theft, confiscation, or extortion.
It is inevitable that the border security personnel of collapsing regimes will be trained to identify cryptocurrency touchpoints to detect and control value flows and emigration, preventing economic refugees from leaving safely with what value they have left.
While bitcoin itself is intangible, in order for us to engage with the network we have to interact with points of contact along the way.
Private keys (effectively the password to your account) generated by cryptographic hashing algorithms are incredibly challenging if not impossible to memorize, and their format speaks to the nature of a private key.
Example Private Key:
Backup seed phrases are mnemonic devices used to backup and restore access to wallets. BIP-39 seed phrases were implemented to create an english language backup to be kept entirely offline. These are used by the majority of trusted wallet providers to backup and restore access to accounts. Instead of needing addresses together with private keys, only the seed phrases are required to access an account.
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Seed phrases are often stored in a format that signals the storage of wealth. If found, a numbered list of seed phrases can be recognized as a password to an undefined amount of money. Whether to a government regime or to thieves along the journey of migration, cryptocurrency touchpoints belie one of the major characteristics of bitcoin: undetectability and inconfiscatabilty.
Carrying a list of seed phrases along your journey could be considered suspect behavior and put any individual at risk. Even the average person who stores their seed phrases in a single physical location could have their funds stolen if they are found by someone familiar with the process of restoring from backup phrases.
How can we design for these fringe cases today to build individual freedom and agency for those living under unstable dictatorships, persecution, or war? How can we help people safely travel with and store their value in times where fiat is failing, gold is in high demand and at risk of theft? How can we build systems for the everyday person to be able to conceal their seed phrases in ways to avoid detection, extortion, and confiscation?
How can we best enable the safe migration of people and their value?
Cryptography means “secret writing” in Greek, the technique dating back nearly four thousand years to ancient egypt. Defined as “the art of protecting information by transforming it into an unreadable format called cipher text,” cryptography is a critical element in the suite of technologies that make bitcoin possible.
Steganography on the other hand means “hidden writing”. Where cryptography describes messages written in a way that prevents a third-party from deciphering the information, steganography describes messages written in a way that the third-party doesn’t even realize the secondary message exists.
In tumultuous circumstances steganography becomes of critical importance, many techniques having been developed to secure communications in times of war. From invisible inks used by the American revolutionaries to microdots used by the Germans between the World Wars, steganographic techniques were developed and employed among fierce battles and political revolution. Modern techniques include the embedding of spy communications in the pixels of an innocuous picture.
Fishing freshwater bends and saltwater coasts rewards anyone feeling stressed. Resourceful anglers usually find masterful leapers fun and admit swordfish rank overwhelming any day.--------------By taking the third letter in each word the following message emerges:Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
For thousands of years, wealth and information have been carried through different mediums from song and poetry to books, diaries, stories, and art. What if we embedded our seed phrases into stories to develop monetary safety and sovereignty for people around the world?
The seminal book demonstrating the art of steganography is Johannes Trithemius’ book of magic: Steganographia. Banned for 300 years by the Catholic Church due to it’s occultism, it’s deeper layers of meaning have only been discovered recently. It turns out that beneath its surface, steganographia was a book not about dark magic, but about the art of concealing the existence of secondary layers of information.
Storing seed phrases in a numbered list would put anyone at risk, especially economic refugees, migrants, or travelers. Seeds can instead be embedded in poetry, stories, notebooks, or works of art.
A “trithemian seed” is a list of cryptocurrency backup seed phrases stored in an innocuous body of writing, such as a poem, story, or letter.
Imagine migrating from your home to a new country thousands of miles away. Instead of carrying cash or gold, you use a local over-the-counter exchange to buy bitcoin. You send it to your hardware wallet, embed the seed phrases into a story, destroy the hardware wallet and travel to a new country without any evidence of your net worth. When you arrive you can restore your wallet from the story and exchange bitcoin for local currency. Declaring it as you sell it, you can start a new life without needing a loan or established credit.
There are many ways to approach the development of Trithemian seeds, some examples could include:
Story & phone number — In this method, a short story is written with true and decoy seed phrases interspersed among a handwritten piece of text that would fit well in a notebook. Two or three phone numbers are then written after the story is constructed, correlating to the relevant seeds in the body of text. These should be written on a different page to remove any connection between the text and the numbers.
Example:The faint lines across the lonely expanse make scale hard to determine. As I walk towards the gate, I sling my camera over my shoulder and prepare to enter the old palace. The door pushes open easily and I walk into the courtyard - no adult in sight. I place my camera on the table and get to work searching through the waste. As I dust off an ancient board game, something shiny catches my eye. I reach towards the cupboard and pick up a gold medal. Upon closer inspection, I notice an inscription that seems to resemble a foreign language. I pocket the trinket with the hope that this might make for a good enough payment at the border. Any valuable will do.-------------Eric: +26-918–222–5457
Letter & GPS location — This method eliminates the need for a number pair, heightening strength at the cost of complexity. In this case, a geographic landmark is chosen that relates to a plot built around the given seed phrases. The GPS coordinates of this landmark dictate the placement of the seed phrases among the body of text. To maintain relatively easy dispersal with slight variation, every digit read increases by ten, so 21.493021 translates to: 2, 11, 24, 39,43, 50, 62, 71. This removes the need for a number pair as the numbers are themselves embedded into the location of the central landmark of a story.
Example:Such an asset to be represented by an experienced and mature lawyer particularly when you have a trial in front of the Supreme Court of the USA. Load your argument with logic and do not provide ways to escape. Symbol of cultural diversity should be used as often as possible in order to support the story. Our client clearly did not make that complex and improvised bomb himself. They were on their way to his friend's picnic by the river when he noticed a suspicious person pretending to do aerobic exercises. He immediately pointed it out to his friends. Their whereabouts aren't a mystery, during the attack they were ordering ginger tea with honey to bring to the picnic.-------------(U.S. Supreme Court: 38.8906° N, 77.0044° W.)(3,18,28,39,40,56,67,77,80,90,104,114.)
These examples are not necessarily meant to be cryptographically secure or uncrackable under close examination, they are intended to store seed phrases in a way that prevents its viewers from even thinking to search deeper into its meaning. If these were sent as a letter, carried as a notebook, or both, few people would have the reason and effort to investigate the sheer volume of information. Only you know which story contains your wealth.
It can be easy to overlook the point of bitcoin living in a country where people trust their government. What happens to those who can’t? What has happened to those who couldn’t? It is truly a privilege to be unaware of the importance of trust.
The potential of cryptocurrencies isn’t limited to the speed of transactions or speculation, but rather in redefining financial autonomy by enabling people to be free to make their own decisions.
The beauty of trithemian seeds is that they hide in plain sight. If you’ve read this far, you’ve read every word required to access a wallet with .03 BTC. Good luck!
The address of the wallet associated with the seeds embedded in this article is 1K4ezpLybootYF23TM4a8Y4NyP7auysnRo. If the amount is not accessed by the end of 2020, we will donate the contents of the account to GiveDirectly.org/refugees.
We are all connected by a few degrees from someone who has experienced or is experiencing a similar story. We would love to hear and share some of those experiences. Please feel free to reach out via DM if you would like to contribute to an ongoing collection of these stories.
Trithemius, Johannes, Steganographia. Frankfurt, 1606.
Johnson, N. F., Duric, Z., Jajodia, S. Information Hiding: Steganography and Watermarking — Attacks and Countermeasures. Kluwer Academic Press. Norwrll, MA, New York, The Hague, London, 2000.
Indice de Libros Prohibidos (1877) [Index of Prohibited Books of Pope Pius IX (1877)]. Vatican. 1880. Retrieved 2 August 2009.