Hal Finney dies at 58; software developer and privacy activist

Software developer Hal Finney was a privacy activist — he was a key developer of PGP, the world’s most-used encryption program for email, and he made crucial refinements to bitcoin digital currency.

But Finney was hardly secretive or reclusive. His phone number was listed, his address known to many friends. And last year he openly discussed his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. At that point he was essentially paralyzed and communicated by using a device that tracked eye movements.

“I’m pretty lucky overall. Even with the ALS, my life is very satisfying,” he wrote on a bitcoin forum. “I’m comfortable with my legacy.”

Finney, 58, died Thursday in a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., said his wife, Fran Finney. His body was taken to a nearby facility where it was prepared to be frozen by a group that promotes the highly controversial cryonics process to preserve bodies in hopes they can later be revived.

Finney was working for a software company in 1991 when he heard about PGP. He volunteered to help develop the free program, created by Phil Zimmermann, to give online users protection from having their emails intercepted.


“Hal was motivated by the highest ideals of human rights,” Zimmermann said last week. Finney helped devise a “web of trust” to protect a user from being electronically impersonated.

PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy, but some federal officials found it to be too good. An investigation was launched into the legality of PGP’s distribution. To shield Finney from the probe, Zimmermann said, his contributions to the software were kept low profile, “but it kept him from getting the credit he deserved at that time.”

When the investigation was closed in 1996, Zimmermann started a company to develop commercial applications of PGP. Finney joined the company and stayed with it until he retired in 2011.

“A lot of smart people have some kind of social maladjustment,” Zimmermann said. “But Hal was never afflicted by that. He was a very kind, generous human being.”

He was born Harold Finney II on May 4, 1956, in Coalinga, Calif., where his father worked for Union Oil. The family moved to Arcadia, where Finney graduated from high school. He got a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Caltech in 1979.

After working on video games and other projects locally, he moved to Santa Barbara, where he lived the rest of his life, telecommuting when he joined the PGP company.

In late 2008, he learned of bitcoin from an online post by a man who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. Finney was intrigued by the cryptographic security an online currency would need. “I have always loved crypto, the mystery and the paradox of it,” Finney said in a post.

He was one of the first to engage in a bitcoin transaction and helped bolster the security of its software. But he said he was surprised to learn, in 2010, that bitcoin was still going. As the currency gained more acceptance, a mystery arose to the true identity of Nakamoto.

Some thought it was Finney. “It wasn’t true,” Fran Finney said, “but he thought it was pretty amusing.”

ALS progressively robbed his body of muscular function, and eventually he lost all ability to communicate. “He so badly wanted to see the future,” Fran Finney said. He hoped cryonics would one day allow him a longer life span. But he didn’t want to be revived only to be riddled with the same disease.

“He only wants to come back,” she said, “if there is a cure for ALS.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Jason, of Santa Barbara; a daughter, Erin, of Denver; sisters Pat Wolf of Willis, Texas, and Kathy Liu of Temple City; and brother Mike Finney of Bend, Ore.

Twitter @davidcolker