Activists Are Using Bitcoin To Make Protest Art. Here's Why.

The increasingly decentralized nature of protests parallels the changes in technology.

Why It Matters

As a multicultural country with a global diaspora, Canada is uniquely positioned to support the voices of oppressed communities from a place of safety. However, as a hub for blockchain innovation, Canada can not only support but also build the technologies that will reduce corruption, promote freedom, and protect citizens worldwide.

Art has always played a pivotal role in social protest.

From the murals on the Berlin Wall to more recent pieces by famed street artist Banksy, artists have used this public form of expression to express their disapproval with the status quo in their communities and the world. Most recently, we’ve seen this during the Hong Kong protests, where citizens adopted Bruce Lee’s famous phrase “Be Water” to describe their decentralized and fluid protest style.

But what is most revolutionary about the art used in Hong Kong is the way it is distributed. In past protests, posters were plastered on walls or printed and handed out like postcards, but Hong Kong’s tech-savvy protesters are taking a digital approach. Using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks, protestors art is airdropped from phone to phone and shared across encrypted networks. The art shares protest locations and actions, criticizes government, and provides unity amongst the leaderless protest community.

The increasingly decentralized nature of protests parallels the changes in technology. Blockchain and other distributed ledgers are scaling projects in a way that has never previously been possible without centralized coordination.

Recently, decentralized technology met decentralized protest when artist Pascal Boyart painted a mural in the Butte-Chaumon neighbourhood of Paris. The piece supported the Yellow Vest movement that saw rural and suburban citizens protesting tax schemes and a rise in gas prices. It used imagery from “Liberty Leading the People,” a painting depicting the revolution of 1830.

While the mural was powerful in as a piece of protest art, it held an even deeper meaning, as it was hiding something special within: bitcoin. The art piece contained a cryptographic puzzle and the answer to the puzzle contained a “seed phrase,” a combination of 12 words that opened a wallet with a $1000 cryptocurrency reward.

There’s a not-so-subtle purpose to hiding bitcoin inside an art piece depicting revolution. Bitcoin itself is a decentralized currency, built on blockchain, a decentralized technology that enables people to have greater self-sovereignty and overcome oppressive government regimes. Publicizing this technology at the heart of communities who are in the midst of a protest equips them with tools to support their cause while simultaneously snubbing the governments they are protesting.

It took a week for someone to crack the puzzle. Here’s how it was done.

Words as Colours 

The first step was to find the clues within the painting. Take a close look at the mural — do you see them? A close inspection of the background colours shows unusual striping patterns in six locations. Those patterns represent the first six words of the 12-word phrase.

Each set of stripes represents one word. The code here uses six-colour binary, a tool that uses six colours and assigns each letter of the alphabet a unique combination of two of the colours. This allows whole words and phrases to be spelled in colour. The solution, shown below, leads to six words: banker, usury, lie, people, fight, and hope. From these words, the puzzle itself told the story of the protesters and their fight.

Encoded

To solve the second set of words, the solver had to be physically present at the mural. As the image below shows, the painting hid a set of clues that were only visible under black light.

The first set of clues at the top, with the words ATOUT and JPAVFLU, is a code that uses a cryptographic method called a Caesar cipher. A Caesar cipher essentially shifts the alphabet by a certain number of spots. A cipher of 2 would mean an ‘A’ is represented as a ‘C,’ and a cipher of 4 would mean an ‘A’ would be represented as ‘E.’ This particular puzzle shifted the first word by 20 and the second by 19, leaving us with the answers Union and Citizen.

The next two clues look more complex: Y29uZHVpcmU= and dHJpb21waGU=. These character strings are encoded using base64, a scheme which enables data to be sent in binary, allowing channels that only support text to be used. For example, it allows image files to be embedded in text-based assets like HTML files. You can read how it works, and how in this instance, it gives the words Lead and Triumph.

The final clue, mq+cC6Ax2+8R8LAnEWgQnA== is encrypted with 128bit AES, which was unlocked using a key that was sent via email to people who discovered the black light writing. The key was notable in itself, as it was the number 03012009, the date of the very first block of transactions ever written to the bitcoin blockchain — the genesis block. Once decrypted, the result gives the final two words, Horizon and Yellow.

12 Words

Just as a lock opens with the combination, all 12 words together opened the wallet that contained the bitcoin reward. But more importantly, the words themselves told the story of the Yellow Vest protest and why it mattered.

banker usury lie people fight hope union citizen lead triumph horizon yellow

It’s the story of citizens fighting together against unfair taxation with the hope that their yellow vests will draw attention to the cause, just like the mural has.

As a multicultural country with a global diaspora, Canada is uniquely positioned to support the voices of oppressed communities from a place of safety. However, as a hub for blockchain innovation, Canada can not only support but also build the technologies that will reduce corruption, promote freedom, and protect citizens worldwide. Some shining examples include Vancouver’s Rightmesh, who are using blockchain-based mesh networks to improve access to internet in Indigenous communities in Canada, and Ethereum, founded by Toronto’s Vitalik Buterin, which is the backbone of most decentralized applications.

A full breakdown of the solution can be found on Pascal Boyart’s website.