RIP, Len Sassaman: cypherpunk and anonymity hacker

GuidoDavid sez, "Len Sassaman, a cryptographer, activist and biopunk died yesterday, he lost the battle against depression in Leuven, Belgium. He is survived by his widow, Meredith L. Patterson, also a hacker and biopunk. His work and actions inspired me and shaped the world we live in, as he was active during the Crypto Wars and designed and wrote anonymizing tools. He will be missed, but I hope that his legacy will go on and I am certain he will continue inspiring our efforts."
An obituary posted on Facebook by Sassaman's friend and fellow hacker Pablos Holman recounted the pair's early work on crypto-systems after they met in 1999.

"We were reimagining our world, riddled with cryptosystems that would mathematically enforce the freedoms that we treasured. Anonymous remailers to preserve speech without fear of retribution; onion routers to ensure nobody could censor the internet; digital cash to enable a radically free economy."

While much of their work was an academic "geek utopia exercise", Sassaman liked to "get his hands dirty", which led to numerous visits from Federal agencies over remailer abuse, according to Holman: "Len, you are, in fact, an inspiration to those of us who inspired you. You made something great of your life. You left a lot behind for us. Thanks for letting me be a part of it all."

Young cryptographer ends own life (Thanks, GuidoDavid.)

(Image: Codecon 2006, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from ioerror's photostream)


  1. It is interesting that a a person suffering from depression would be so interested in cryptography and privacy, I wonder if it was a attempt to find a psychological safe place, a retreat or refuge from a world that he needed to escape from. I don’t want to diminish or dismiss this man’s achievements by saying they may have been a product of his depression, I believe sincerely that he and men and women like him are making the world better everyday. I hope his family and friends remember him fondly and I hope he found the peace that this world could not yet give him.

  2. I wonder why high intelligence and problems like depression so often seem to come together.
    Speaking philosophically perhaps the greater the vision the easier it is to see ones own failings. Maybe it is that you can see from the top that you are only the greatest of the termites.
    Baruch Dyan Emet.

    1. This is only a hypothesis, but I think the human analytic faculties focus on things that stimulate negative emotions because those are the things most likely to benefit from analysis. The greater one’s analytical intelligence, the more they would then focus on things that draw the mind into the abyss of despair. I’m no genius like Len Sassaman certainly was (the man revolutionized crypto when he was 21), but I know from my own personal battles with depression that the best medicine was forcing myself to meditate on the good in other people, in the world, and in myself, even though focusing on those was less productive than the problems clamoring for my attention.

      Of course that assessment doesn’t convey the sheer emotional chasm that grips a spirit in the grip of depression, when you feel like no one and nothing can help you escape its death spiral and the temptation to give in can be overwhelming.

      Though it can’t mean much coming from a stranger, my thoughts are with his friends and window.

  3. @rebdav, essentially, the more intelligent you are the more you can see the extent of your problems. If you were in the bottom 50% of the population you might live on blissfully unaware that many of these problems actuall exist for you, happy to just wander through life oblivious to dangers and issues that the world around you sees.

    I find it a strange construct “lost his battle against depression” while the alternatives aren’t much better…

  4. TIL “lost the battle against depression” is a euphemism for “committed suicide”.

  5. From personal experience i suspect is it not limited to awareness of personal troubles, but also those of society in both local and global sense.

    This as well as an awareness of the massive undertaking it will be to attempt to correct them all.

  6. Guys, given that his wife reads Boing Boing and is still in grief, maybe we should hold off on speculating about depression, his motivations, etc.

  7. Speaking as someone who both loves coding, cryptography, and freedom who is also, and has been his entire life, very depressed, I can relate.

  8. What a terrible loss. Depression, for some, can be a horrible battle. It would be civil, at the very least, for those who have never felt the bite of this vicious affliction to keep to kinder words.

    Peace to his family, what a sad time for them.

  9. Although I am not in the computer world, my deepest condolences go out to the family of Mr. Sassaman. I too suffer from chronic depression and understand the horrible dark pain in inflicts on those who have it. It’s as much a disease as cancer. May Mr. Sussaman rest in peace.

  10. Too young (but isn’t it always?). I only knew Sassaman through his work and the occasional conference, but he was an inspiration. I will pour out some entropy for him.

  11. The more you learn about the world, the more you realize how depressing a place it is. It’s a natural reaction.

  12. Listen up: depression is organic like diabetes. Its much more than personal
    realizations that you’re not superman, your social discomfort or disdain, etc.

    Its your f’in mood signal going south for no reason, killing any pleasure, energy, and introducing negative thoughts.

    You can take SSRIs to clamp (like a “zener diode”) the negative swings.
    Prozac is remarkably benign; other meds in my experience may cause desirable (or not) stimulation or sedation. Do not be afraid to ask your MD to experiment! He’s just an administrator, you have to run the experiment.

    Yes some high peforming intellectuals and artists are bipolar/depressed. Yes there’s obviously some genetics, adaptive biology stuff going on.

    Its very sad that L. died, he was very productive, had a wife, a life, and this is just an example of how depression really is an illness.


    I was on the cp list, have taken prozac and cannabis for over 15 years, and my wife is a shrink. Ethanol is the only thing I consume that gets me high.

    If you think you have depression seek help. It can be a fatal disease, with med treatment, you can do better. You might be surprised.


    1. Absolutely agree….I get so tired of people assuming depression is simply you “feeling sorry for yourself”…it is much more than that. I know there are cases of situational or superficial depression that get lumped in with the actual biologically caused type, but when you are suffering from the biological type, it’s not as though you sit around sad because you want a new car, better job, girlfriend / boyfriend, etc. It is a heavy weight that renders one incapable of experiencing any joy and, at best, leaves you feeling indifferent and numb to the world. Thankfully, there ARE viable treatments to manage it, and, after managing it for years, one can also get to the point of realizing when the current treatment isn’t working correctly anymore. It’s the same as going to the doctor for a broken limb; you wouldn’t think of simply living with the pain and letting permanent damage result from not dealing with the situation. For some reason, most of my highly intelligent friends (and family) seem more prone to biologically-caused depression than those of lesser intelligence. I’m not trying to stereotype; it’s just my observation and may be a matter of me seeking out those who deal with the same issues as myself.

    2. Hear hear. All kinds of people suffer from depression other than artists and intellectuals. It is indeed organic and to say some of this other stuff is to romanticize it.

    3. Thank you for your insightful commentary Major Variola. As one who has also suffered from life-long (60+ years and counting) chronic severe clinical depression, I appreciate your candor and the accuracy with which you described our shared disease. May peace be upon you.

      When I read the cause of Len’s demise, my heart sank in distress, sympathy, and understanding. Requiescat in pace, Len; we will honor you in our memories.

      Alter Ego

  13. another great soul lost to this nasty disease. may the pain fade soon for the mourning.


  14. Yes! I think meditating on the general spirit of good is essential to surviving the abyss of despair and/or depression. I pray for those that are held in the abyss of its relentless grip. Your spirit shines a light for those of us who seek the flame.

  15. ” O wonder!

    How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it! ”

    godspeed and peace Len.

    thank you for bringing us closer at such great personal cost.

  16. Depression is a horrible thing. I’ve been dealing with it for decades. Sometimes it simmers and I can function even while feeling quite bad and wondering just what is it I’m going on day after day for.

    And then there are those periods where it goes so far south that each day is a horrible and lonely battle. There is nothing beautiful in the world. You are worthless. You will never be content in life let alone happy. Nothing you do is worthwhile or good enough. The act of living becomes an act of battling, while exhausted, to simply survive day-to-day without any seeming hope of ever climbing back up out of the dark hole. Hell, you begin to wonder if maybe someone hasn’t backfilled it in on you.

    As others have said, it is all too often not understood. I’ve had a very good friend (close enough to be considered a sister) and my closest sister each scream angrily at me when I’ve confided at how horrible the dark can be and what being there leads me to think of. I have a step father who likes to regularly tell me to “change my attitude”.

    That said, I think society is getting a bit better at not stigmatizing depression. There is still a lot of it (as well as for other mental illnesses) however.

    Though it may just be how hard anti-depressants are pushed in marketing and how many people now go to their primary care physician and ask for a prescription. The same sister that yelled at me freely talks with her two best friends about which ADs they happen to be on…

    In light of something else that has been said, I have one sister who is so ignorant about the world that you cannot possibly have a conversation with her about current events unless it’s something she has seen on a reality tv show. She is a very content and even bubbly happy person. So am I the idiot?

    In closing; Len, thank you for all you contributed to protect the notion of privacy and the right to free speech in your too short life. You were one of the good guys.

  17. You may think antidepressants are pushed; but the well
    acknowledged (if fading) stigma needs overcoming.

    Modern SSRIs don’t zombie you.

    Don’t y’all realize the N% of “teens who’ve tried X”
    are seeking self-medication? That caffeine, ethanol,
    are self-medication, behaviors that affect perceptions
    via internal modulations.

    That humans are tool users and have used psychopharms perhaps before farming or writing?

    If you accept that the mind is a function of the brain, which
    is meat, you pretty much have to give up some of your Randian
    tabla rasa, emotions as rational response, beliefs, as clean
    and perfect as they were. And there are numerous tools to demo that brain modulation affects mind. (Heck, Ayn smoked and took amphetamines, she should have had more clue.)

    Anyway even for teatotallers and xian scientists and mormons —if you think you have depression try an SSRI it can be diagnostic. That in itself is enormously liberating —it wasn’t “you”, you experienced misbalanced circuits. Like diabetes.

    Insert HST quote here.

    Take care of yourselves. fluoxetine (eg) is generic, cheap.

    no, I don’t own stock, etc. since it helped me a bit, i have
    an obligation to proselytize. don’t get scientologist on me.

    1. Take care of yourselves. fluoxetine (eg) is generic, cheap.

      no, I don’t own stock, etc. since it helped me a bit, i have
      an obligation to proselytize.

      I’m glad it helped you, but this doesn’t give you an obligation to proselytize. Antidepressants do not work for everyone and the side effects can be severe (nausea, dizziness, brain zaps, weight gain, etc.). I think that antidepressants are an option to explore. If they help you, good. If not, then they shouldn’t be used against you. If you have tried 5 different types of anti-depressants (including scaling each one up and down), and nothing has worked, then the patient shouldn’t be deemed to be non-complaint just because they don’t want to feel sick from the side effects and withdrawal symptoms.

      1. Agreed.

        I’ve personally been on a ton of ADs over many years. All kinds of dosages and combinations. Never worked for me. Not the new stuff. Not the old stuff. Not the combos. Not ECT either.

        For me, the mood stabilizer Lamictal is keeping me from dipping so low that things get really dangerous. That’s about it med wise.

        Otherwise the thing that is helping me is finally having lucked into finding a therapist that is accepting, sharp, challenging and somehow gives off some vibe that I picked up upon that told me she was trustworthy.

        I’ve shared with her and worked on things that I had never even admitted to myself.

        That is where I have had the most help. The med regimen I am on now just helps a bit. For me it’s the therapy that has been the most helpful.

        Still in a bad place, but I have a better handle on things than I have ever had before in my life.

        Long way to go, but at least I seem to be moving forward.

    2. Variola said that “Modern SSRIs don’t zombie you.”, but Len had other medical problems going on besides just depression. He’d been getting seizures for a few years, and his various doctors had tried a number of drugs to deal with them, some of which left him zombied, others he described as more like being on acid. He used to complain about trying to figure out how to work on his PhD while missing 20-30 IQ points because of the drugs, and the tranquilizer types of anti-seizure drugs are addictive, with dangerous withdrawal symptoms, but on the other hand he’d had at least one head injury from a seizure when he was alone. Being Len Sassaman was a difficult job just getting through the day.

  18. “The more you learn about the world, the more you realize how depressing a place it is.”

    Keep learning until you come out the other side.

  19. fyi, fluoxetine is mainly fluoride which tends to calcify the pineal gland and shut down or diminish the third eye, it also has a calcifying effect on other organs. I don’t down anyone who takes AD, I have tried the old and new and none of them work for me, I simply have to ride the wave and pray I don’t drown on the way down before I float back to shore, at this point I am extremely lucky to be alive. Do what works for you.

  20. A while back, as I tried Yet Again to make myself do something — anything — besides stare dully at a section of floor 10 feet away, I suddenly exclaimed, “God, I’m depressed!”

    From the other room, my girlfriend asked, “What are you depressed about?”

    “That’s the whole point,” I said. “When you’re depressed about something, it’s called sad.”

    1. “That’s the whole point,” I said. “When you’re depressed about something, it’s called sad.”

      That sums it up very well.

      I don’t think it’s a black/white condition. It’s a spectrum. I’m not a medical doctor, but I’ve read several dozen laymen-level books on neuroscience and depression in an attempt to understand what goes on inside my own brain. My best working hypothesis is that everyone has slightly idiosyncratic neurochemical balances, and in those of us with physiologically caused mental disorders such as clinical depression, those balances are more out of kilter than in those without (though I doubt there is a bright line between the two groups). I also believe it is probably somewhat hereditary in many cases.

      Major Variola is correct that no one should avoid asking their doctor about treatment. Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve watched it make life livable for at least two people in my life. If you have a physiological condition and medication can help, you should at least give it a try. For myself, I found that therapy and various kinds of meditation were the things that helped me. Why one thing works for some and another works for others, I do not know, but I know it is those that ask for help who learn to cope with it.

      But I know exactly what Mazoola means. Whenever I was at my lowest, and all emotion would become an undifferentiable void, the worst part was the confusion. I had no external reason (and wrongly believed I had no right) to feel that way. Yes I had troubles, but they didn’t begin to explain it. It’s that feeling that your fighting something you can’t even name that is the absolute worst. If you feel that way, I almost guarantee it is neurological. You wouldn’t “just deal” with a tumor, and you should “just deal” with clinical depression.

  21. Len was a LiveJournal user for a few years, but for the last few months he’d been talking about closing the account. I’d last checked his LJ about a week ago, and it was gone.

  22. Depression is more insidious than cancer. At least with cancer the patient isn’t fighting themselves.

  23. I have major first hand experience with depression, suicide attempts and ongoing bi-polar struggles. I’m not exactly sure if I’m 100% behind the phrase “lost the battle” – using the common “commited sucide” is much more to the point. Also, a lot of depression and other psycho-somatic diseases are not so much of a battle as a QUEST to find either the correct medications or holistic treatments. When I read something like “lost the battle” I wonder why the sugar-coating. This helps no one. Like I said, I have first hand experience, and I’ve suffered through some horrific chemically-based things. If I can handle “committed suicide” so can others. Thank you. It’s hard to lose anyone, especially those we’re very close to…

    1. MacBookHeir commented “When I read something like “lost the battle” I wonder why the sugar-coating.”

      IMHO this is a problem in our greater cultural mileau. As we have moved away from the personal, visceral experience of the great cycle that is LIFE, we grow unwilling to acknowledge as real, the fundamental actions and passages that make up that great cycle. Consider how we isolate the beginnings (birth) and the endings (death) into the anonymous, sterile world of the hospital. The culture at large, at least in the U.S., needs these euphemisms (“lost the battle”) to insulate itself from the verities, preferring to follow “reality” entertainment. :(

  24. There was a lot more to Len’s pain than depression. He had Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory disease, since he was in high school, and it eventually triggered a rare form of spinal arthritis. Doctors aren’t great with pain management, and psychiatrists get twitchy with someone taking pain meds everyday, and start hand-waving about dependence rather than dealing with depression. Bill Stewart also pointed out the seizures. He lost a battle with depression that our medical professionals were rather reluctant to help him fight, and he was rather reluctant to keep hunting from competent ones.

    I met Len in 2000. We were a couple from 2001-2004. We stayed friends, though we had our ups and downs. I last spoke to him a few days before he died. I am crushed that he chose to end it rather than try just one more thing…

    1. “He lost a battle with depression that our medical professionals
      were rather reluctant to help him fight”
      The way out of major depression is with the help of close family or friends. Even the most skilled physicians can only make semi-educated guesses concerning type of meds and dosage. It took me three doctors and a small variety of meds (thang goodness for meds!) to get me back on my feet. I could not do it on my own, because I didn’t want to be on planet Earth

      I wish I could ween myself off of the meds that help control my bi-polar 1 symptoms, but it doesn’t work that way. I also can’t wish it away. It’s a struggle, yes. But it’s no battle.

      PS – I find Pablos Holman’s statement about how he and Sassaman were “REIMAGINING” the world very interesting. Even major innovators like a Walt Disney or a Picasso or a Emma Goldman or a Richard Pryor can only bite off a small chunk of the world and spit it back out. “Reimagining” the world seems like a pie-in-the-sky, unworkable plan – and may have contributed to Sassaman’s problems. Keeping life simple and avoiding the urge to reimagine life seems like a valid life course

    2. Hi, Anon@36, I was hoping someone had told you. I’d never been sure why Len had the walking problems, but I’d known he had Crohns (along with a few other friends who had it); not surprised to hear they’re related.

  25. My heart goes out to the family and friends of Sussaman. I pray they have peace in their souls and understanding.

    I guess I’m lucky to be a simple man just traipsing through life. (happy go lucky).
    Ernest Hemingway said: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” :D :-) :):-) Thank goodness! I missed a bullet there.

    I’ve got to say I admire all the very intelligent people out there. I think they too have a shot at happiness. It comes through achieving independence, helping and serving others.

  26. While I am very sad our world lost a great talent, it was wonderful to read so many comments actually about depression. Having suffered myself and come from a family that also had it–and never talked about it, I can assure you that this sharing of feelings and knowledge is the first step toward treating it. I was lucky and didn’t have to take meds, but my partner in life must and that’s fine. Whatever works: for me it’s serious meditation and breathing, plus walking and birdwatching. Either way, something has to be done that will keep an active mind able to fight the negative thoughts. A talented mind can’t focus and work during serious depression. Maybe by talking freely about it, and fighting the stigma, younger people facing the same problems will have an easier time of it. I admire the work Mr. Sassaman has done and especially what he stood for. My heart goes out to his widow.

Comments are closed.