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The Ceremony

Friday, July 14, 2017 - 04:00 AM

WNYC Studios

Last November, journalist Morgen Peck showed up at her friend Molly Webster's apartment in Brooklyn, told her to take her battery out of her phone, and began to tell her about The Ceremony, a moment last fall when a group of, well, let's just call them wizards, came together in an undisclosed location to launch a new currency. It's an undertaking that involves some of the most elaborate security and cryptography ever done (so we've been told). And math. Lots of math. It was all going great until, in the middle of it, something started to behave a little...strangely.

Reported by Molly Webster. Produced by Matt Kielty and Molly Webster. Denver Ceremony station recordings were created by media maker Nathaniel Kramer, with help from Daniel Cooper. 

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Morgen Peck, Peter Todd, Peter Van Valkenburgh and Zooko Wilcox


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Comments [38]

David Dawson from Meadville, PA

The technical bits reminded me of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. The Ceremony sounds like a version of the secret beach meeting where a bunch of confidantes met to generate keys for that initial web of trust. Loved this story. Thanks!

Jul. 21 2017 11:58 AM
Jay Williams from Tennessee

I really enjoyed the story. I really helped remind me how completely crazy people are to want more "internet connected" devices in their home. Having an Internet of Things (IoT) is going to be a hacker's playground. A laptop & phone is enough of a privacy invasion.

Jul. 21 2017 11:45 AM
Robert from Portland, OR

Like many others I came here hoping for closure with regard to the apparently hacked cell phone. I will take exception though with the other tone and state that I enjoyed the episode, until it ended with the unanswered questions about this.

Air gaps and DVD's indeed, perhaps the only way to compute with security and privacy in 2017.

Jul. 20 2017 04:35 PM
Tobias from UK

I really love Radiolab, I've been a subscriber since the early years. While I've been denying it for a while, this episode forces me to admit their decline. Early episodes used to be super great, extremely well researched and always left me feeling satisfied.

What happened with this episode? The high-point was someone forgetting to turn their phone off and is supposedly hacked because of this. But what happens next? No security experts are interviewed to at least provide some theory of what might have happened.

Instead, we get a discussion about what privacy means in today's world. Interesting, but it feels like a misstep from what should have followed.

I came here to read through the comments because I was genuinely curious as to if anyone might have had a theory on how the phone was compromised, instead I find many comments suggesting that it isn't just me who feels like this episode was shallow.

Radiolab, if you're listening, please get back to the rigour of earlier episodes. That is what made you popular, if you lose quality you will also lose listeners. This is the only podcast I consistently listen to because of the thorough reporting.

Jul. 20 2017 01:14 PM
CK Dexter Haven from RI

Why was Morgen Peck's phone left on? It was never addressed.

Jul. 20 2017 12:54 PM
Paul Sypek

Forgive me Ms. Webster but I can't get past the "was likes and the I'm likes and the he's likes and the like, like, likes. It sets my teeth on edge. You're obviously an extremely intelligent lady who unfortunately speaks "like" a valley girl. As a result I bailed on the entire episode. Please help me get over this. I miss out on so much because of it.

Jul. 19 2017 11:59 PM

This episode hard to listen to. I couldn't get through it. Everyone in the piece thinks they're soooo funny - I guess you had to be there, because they're really, really not. Too bad. This is an interesting subject that's not going away.

Jul. 19 2017 04:05 PM
Vimal Menon from New York, NY

Guy you are killing me. Morgan seems compromised to me, her obsession with this dude and his wizard status is nuts. To me, her reporting was biased right from the start. Can someone explain to me what I have been listening to for the last 45 minutes? The beauty of Radio Lab has been the ability to breakdown complex ideas and more importantly do stories that people actually care about. This seems like an individual (i.e. Morgan) who was desperate to make a story out of a nonevent. Also let's say she did actually think this was a story, is it improbable that Zooko did actually hack her phone in an attempt to freak her out and make her feel like there was a story here. I turn to radio lab every 2 weeks in the hopes of listening to an intelligent and thought provoking story. I would appreciate not been disappointed like this again.

Jul. 18 2017 02:39 PM
Dave from Baltimore

What a great magic trick. I have never seen so much misdirection in my life. So in the end he had a DVD with a number known to him, switched it out with the one so laboriously produced and now knows the exact number used.

Jul. 18 2017 10:08 AM
Kylem1701 from San Diego

I found it hilarious that all these dweebs trusted a woman to tell their story when they didn't allow a single one to be part of the process of creating the actual currency.

Jul. 18 2017 01:22 AM
Bill from Burlington

20 Minutes of advertising for Z cash? What Great Podcast !

Jul. 17 2017 04:05 PM
Will from kentucky

hmmm. Just from listening to the episode, she said she doesn't run apps on her phone... except she had said earlier that she got a message on Signal? a messaging app she got from Zooko?

Jul. 17 2017 01:02 PM
Isaac from Burbank, CA

Um, where's the other half of the episode? You know, the part where someone talks to experts and does deep science-informed analysis and presents a hypothesis for what may have happened, what it means, how privacy interacts with our world, and what the future holds for zcash et al. This episode ended and I checked my phone because I was sure the app had crashed or something. If the recent quality decline is the result of outsourcing episodes because it's too much for a small team, then I would much rather have 3 great episodes that stick to Radiolab's model of scientific curiosity than 10 mediocre ones like this. While it was a very intriguing kernel for a Radiolab episode, this was half-baked.

Jul. 17 2017 02:34 AM
Nic from Canberra, AUS

Despite the criticisms in the comments I enjoyed this episode. It introduced some amazing realities of cyber currency to me. *****

Jul. 17 2017 01:59 AM
Alex W

Kind of silly to still do digital key ceremonies / generation when exploits like semmiaccurate exist in the wild.

Unless you fab your own chips and write your own hw/sw, you do not know who is watching.


Jul. 17 2017 12:17 AM
Tony Lima from Silicon Valley, CA

I'm just a dumb economist. And I'm well past retirement age. But even I would know enough not to allow an Android phone anywhere near that room. Among iPhone, Blackberry, and Android, the last is the most vulnerable to hacking. Better question: why didn't they build a Faraday cage and put all the phones inside? It strikes me that they could have used an actual electrical engineer on the team who understood this stuff. If I know about this, someone in that room should have known, too.

Tony Lima

Jul. 16 2017 09:51 PM
Mark Johnson from SLC

This used to be a great show.

Jul. 16 2017 09:09 PM
Dan from Sunapee, New Hampshire

Nevermind, just noticed it lower in the thread! Rachmaninov's Rhapsody. Thanks Nabil!

Jul. 16 2017 08:06 PM
Dan from Sunapee, New Hampshire

Does anyone know what song is played @21:35 (until ~21:55)? I know it's an immensely famous song but I can't seem to Shazam it and not knowing the name of this song is killing my entire family! Any help would be greatly appreciated. As was this episode I should say...
Thanks so much in advance to anyone that can help!!

Jul. 16 2017 08:03 PM
Pixelboy from Toronto

I find it very odd that Morgan a tech reporter did not know how to view running apps on her phone. Her behavior after was suspicious as well. Radiolab did not do their usual in depth reporting. The episode seemed unfinished.

Jul. 16 2017 05:43 PM
Ken L from NY

Did this feel like a BS techno ghost story to anyone else? This feels like one of those ghost shows on Sci-fi channel. I felt like this was a lot more smoke-and-mirrors and drama than was necessary.

Jul. 16 2017 09:59 AM

How the fuk do you find me. I have never used the same bitcoin wallet twice. I use actually make a new account for every transaction.

I've probably left a bitcoin in a wallet when it was less than 1 coin a dollar. I cant find it again but these lost wallets are now worth 1ks of money. but I'll never go back. - at the time I abandoned a dollar.

How will you find me.

A basic misunderstanding of users. Idiot.

Jul. 15 2017 11:22 PM
Z from Lincoln, NE

Is there a version of that song behind the ending credits available? I can't get it out of my head.

Jul. 15 2017 06:33 PM
Nabil from Toronto

@Music Nut

The music played around the 20min mark is the 18th variation of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It sounds like it was slowed down a bit. Here's the link:

Jul. 15 2017 02:03 PM
Roger from Boston

So what did happen with her phone? What had been done to it and any theories on who was behind it if it was something nefarious? Hopefully you all are working on a follow-up to this story.

Jul. 15 2017 12:19 PM
Thomas from Canada

Claims to be strives utmost security; Buys modern computer with "management engine" back door.

"The ME consists of an ARC processor core (replaced with other processor cores in later generations of the ME), code and data caches, a timer, and a secure internal bus to which additional devices are connected, including a cryptography engine, internal ROM and RAM, memory controllers, and a direct memory access (DMA) engine to access the host operating system’s memory as well as to reserve a region of protected external memory to supplement the ME’s limited internal RAM. The ME also has network access with its own MAC address through an Intel Gigabit Ethernet Controller." - libreboot

"The Active Management Technology (AMT) application, part of the Intel “vPro” brand, is a Web server and application code that enables remote users to power on, power off, view information about, and otherwise manage the PC. It can be used remotely even while the PC is powered off (via Wake-on-Lan). Traffic is encrypted using SSL/TLS libraries, but recall that all of the major SSL/TLS implementations have had highly publicized vulnerabilities. The AMT application itself has known vulnerabilities, which have been exploited to develop rootkits and keyloggers and covertly gain encrypted access to the management features of a PC. Remember that the ME has full access to the PC’s RAM. This means that an attacker exploiting any of these vulnerabilities may gain access to everything on the PC as it runs: all open files, all running applications, all keys pressed, and more." -libreboot

"In summary, the Intel Management Engine and its applications are a backdoor with total access to and control over the rest of the PC. The ME is a threat to freedom, security, and privacy" -libreboot

The whole point of the "ceremony" was to instill market confidence by showing how secure they are. With there target audience being those who are most concerned about security which are just the people who are concerned with ME. I find it depressing that they did not take this into account when buying the computer.

Jul. 15 2017 07:20 AM
Music Nut from VA

What is the title of the classical piece played just brfore the break? Beautiful and perfectly placed.

Jul. 15 2017 12:28 AM
Jonah from Madison, WI

I'll echo some of the other comments after just listening to this story. It really didn't feel like most all of the RadioLab podcasts I've heard - and I've heard every single one since 2002. A lot of questions came to mind that should have been touched on, and it seemed like the abrupt ending due to carelessness of the reporter not turning her phone off shouldn't have been the climax.

Check out ZCash's website to get a look at their algorithms and science. I wish they'd spent more time talking about the science and complexity of the system, as well has had taken a more in depth and skeptical look into the reason for the phone feedback and the possible reasons and power of the NSA, Google, Governments [or others] to hack a reporter's Android phone. I still love listening to podcasts from years back, so please keep it up!!

Jul. 14 2017 09:52 PM
CC from Tacoma, WA

This felt like an incomplete episode. There are so many questions I had after the conclusion and was baffled by the lack of depth in the story; it was an interesting piece of a story but by no means a whole story. Additionally, I agree with RDW from Urbana, IL and their comments. Absolutely love Radiolab, but this piece just needed more, much more.

Jul. 14 2017 07:29 PM
Linck from San Diego, CA

Is it just me or does Zooko kinda sound like Bill Nye?

Jul. 14 2017 06:05 PM

People who liked this episode should read Cryptonomicon!

Jul. 14 2017 04:23 PM
RDW from Urbana, IL

This episode of Radiolab might epitomize how disappointing the program has become and how far it's strayed from its curious, critical origins.

Spoiler alert: During the great reveal, when it turns out the journalist's phone has been used as a listening device -- A LISTENING DEVICE -- we get sighs and ughs and references to cats and then an excruciatingly shallow conversation about personal privacy.

Think this was just a random, thrill-seeking hacker? If you listen to the episode, I suppose that's what you'd walk away with. You wouldn't think: NSA. You wouldn't think: organized crime syndicate. But notice that in order for this hack to occur, an incredible amount of coordinated effort would have had to take place -- to know about the currency project, who would be involved in "the ceremony," and what devices they would be carrying with them. That isn't the work of a bedroom hacker.

The Radiolab of old would have had interviewed someone with expert knowledge about state-sponsored surveillance techniques to inform the conversation. They might have said: yes, it's quite plausible that every journalist reporting about cyber-security is under routine surveillance now. The tools exist to do that, and so is the political will.

Instead we get, from the producer: "Then it just dawned on me -- duh, like, her privacy isn't just hers." And from the journalist: "I almost feel like I don't have a right to give over that phone if I haven't talked to the people that that would be exposing." Notice, they are having this conversation as a rebuttal to the idea that the anyone should study her phone about how the hack was done. Seemingly lost on everyone is the fact that a hacker just presumably went through every scrap of information on that phone. Why assume otherwise?

But, no, not a critical word about how careless the journalist is about cyber-security generally, her own in particular, and the true scope of the systematic threats to privacy. Not even a "we learned an important lesson today" moment at the end. In fact, as a kind of gesture of resignation about the whole privacy issue, the journalist just gives her phone to Wilcox anyway. Some lesson.

An important topic with a stunning story to go with it -- treated carelessly, told badly. This plays like satire, not journalism.

Jul. 14 2017 02:40 PM
stephen webster

yo this was the most boring episode of all time. like what even happened.

Jul. 14 2017 02:14 PM
John from US

I read the words "Molly Webster" and "Brooklyn".


Jul. 14 2017 11:08 AM
Gordon from Massachusetts

David W: Zcash has never been compromised. What you are thinking about is Zcoin, a completely different currency, based on a completely different protocol. Zerocoin != Zerocash != Zcash.

Jul. 14 2017 11:05 AM
David W from New Jersey

How could you do a whole story on zerocoin without discussing the hack that happened last February when a hacker stole and cashed out about $500,000 worth of zerocoins?

It was a "software error" as is normally claimed. The "protocol is secure". This is the biggest problem with most crypto currencies. Software is hard – especially when it comes to cryptography. The protocol is theoretical and may be perfect, but protocols must be implemented with software which is full of errors.

There have been hundreds of hacks stealing millions of dollars in various cryto currencies. If a national currency had these issues, its price would plummet and no one would use it. However, these crypto currencies never fail because of the idealism of the holders and the few whose entire fortunes are based upon their cryto-holdings.

Jul. 14 2017 10:49 AM
Lena from Germany

Interesting story. But what didn't make sense to me is that they took so many security precautions (unplugging the tv, moving the hotel room's electronics to the bathroom, etc) but they did keep their cellphones in the room?? That seems odd. Or did I miss something?

Jul. 14 2017 10:42 AM
John T Bolds from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Great story by Morgan, I got the creeps just listening to her experience!

The little remix at the end would make a great ringtone!

Thanks as always to the team for an informative and really fun listen.

Jul. 14 2017 08:35 AM

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