Signal by Open Whisper Systems transformed the world of encrypted messaging and encrypted calling. Beyond that, the Signal Protocol (formerly called the Axolotl ratchet) that the brilliant cryptographic engineer Moxie Marlinspike helped design has vastly improved the usage of end-to-end encryption for hundreds of millions of people. Apparently Marlinspike has been working on improving the functionality of cryptocurrency for the masses lately, and based on his past work, he will probably have a significant impact on that area too.
Cryptocurrency remains confusing and challenging for the average person to acquire and manage, much less sell. And the protocols that underlie bitcoin and other mainstream cryptocurrencies like ethereum suffer significant scalability and transaction bottleneck issues. Visa currently processes about 3,674 transactions per second; the best bitcoin network might be able to process seven per second.
But now the creator of the dead simple end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal, Moxie Marlinspike, is on a mission to overcome those limitations, and to create a streamlined digital currency that’s private, easy-to-use, and allows for quick transactions from any device. And while it may feel like the last thing the world needs is yet another cryptocurrency, Marlinspike’s track record with Signal—and the organization behind it, Open Whisper Systems—makes this a project worth watching.
MobileCoin wants to leverage an extensive architecture to add simplicity to real privacy protections and resilience against attacks. The ultimate goal: To make MobileCoin as intuitive as any other payment system.
That vision mirrors the animating purpose of Signal, which was developed to make robust end-to-end encrypted communication as easy and straightforward as less secure options, a simple experience that belies the complex cryptographic communication protocols that enable it.
“I think usability is the biggest challenge with cryptocurrency today,” says Marlinspike. “The innovations I want to see are ones that make cryptocurrency deployable in normal environments, without sacrificing the properties that distinguish cryptocurrency from existing payment mechanisms.”
There are lots of potential applications for MobileCoin, but Goldbard and Marlinspike envision it first as an integration in chat apps like Signal or WhatsApp. Here’s how it would work in practice: To start using MobileCoin, you would generate a public and private key, and a recovery PIN. Then you would set up your account with an app that incorporates MobileCoin. The app would validate the software running in its service’s node, establish an encrypted communication channel to the enclave, and then send your keys and the short, easy-to-remember recovery PIN that you’ll use to access your MobileCoin—like a smartphone lock passcode.
And though speculation has driven bitcoin to all-time-high valuations, most cryptocurrencies don’t end up capturing much value, languishing instead in far-flung corners of the internet. Here again, though, MobileCoin’s creators hope to emulate Signal. End-to-end encryption was once a fringe feature; then WhatsApp gave it to a billion people at once using the Signal Protocol.