This article is from the PGP FAQ, by Jeff Licquia firstname.lastname@example.org with numerous contributions by others.
Computers were developed in secret back in World War II mainly to
break codes. Ordinary people did not have access to computers,
because they were few in number and too expensive. Some people
postulated that there would never be a need for more than half a
dozen computers in the country. Governments formed their attitudes
toward cryptographic technology during this period. And these
attitudes persist today. Why would ordinary people need to have
access to good cryptography?
Another problem with cryptography in those days was that cryptographic
keys had to be distributed over secure channels so that both parties
could send encrypted traffic over insecure channels. Governments
solved that problem by dispatching key couriers with satchels
handcuffed to their wrists. Governments could afford to send guys
like these to their embassies overseas. But the great masses of
ordinary people would never have access to practical cryptography if
keys had to be distributed this way. No matter how cheap and powerful
personal computers might someday become, you just can't send the keys
electronically without the risk of interception. This widened the
feasibility gap between Government and personal access to cryptography.
Today, we live in a new world that has had two major breakthroughs
that have an impact on this state of affairs. The first is the
coming of the personal computer and the information age. The second
breakthrough is public-key cryptography.
With the first breakthrough comes cheap ubiquitous personal
computers, modems, FAX machines, the Internet, E-mail, digital
cellular phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), wireless digital
networks, ISDN, cable TV, and the data superhighway. This
information revolution is catalyzing the emergence of a global
But this renaissance in electronic digital communication brings with
it a disturbing erosion of our privacy. In the past, if the
Government wanted to violate the privacy of ordinary citizens, it had
to expend a certain amount of effort to intercept and steam open and
read paper mail, and listen to and possibly transcribe spoken
telephone conversation. This is analogous to catching fish with a
hook and a line, one fish at a time. Fortunately for freedom and
democracy, this kind of labor-intensive monitoring is not practical
on a large scale.
Today, electronic mail is gradually replacing conventional paper
mail, and is soon to be the norm for everyone, not the novelty is is
today. Unlike paper mail, E-mail messages are just too easy to
intercept and scan for interesting keywords. This can be done
easily, routinely, automatically, and undetectably on a grand scale.
This is analogous to driftnet fishing-- making a quantitative and
qualitative Orwellian difference to the health of democracy.
The second breakthrough came in the late 1970s, with the mathematics
of public key cryptography. This allows people to communicate
securely and conveniently with people they've never met, with no
prior exchange of keys over secure channels. No more special key
couriers with black bags. This, coupled with the trappings of the
information age, means the great masses of people can at last use
cryptography. This new technology also provides digital signatures
to authenticate transactions and messages, and allows for digital
money, with all the implications that has for an electronic digital
economy. (See appendix)
This convergence of technology-- cheap ubiquitous PCs, modems, FAX,
digital phones, information superhighways, et cetera-- is all part of
the information revolution. Encryption is just simple arithmetic to
all this digital hardware. All these devices will be using
encryption. The rest of the world uses it, and they laugh at the US
because we are railing against nature, trying to stop it. Trying to
stop this is like trying to legislate the tides and the weather. It's
like the buggy whip manufacturers trying to stop the cars-- even with
the NSA on their side, it's still impossible. The information
revolution is good for democracy-- good for a free market and trade.
It contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire. They couldn't stop
Soon, every off-the-shelf multimedia PC will become a secure voice
telephone, through the use of freely available software. What does
this mean for the Government's Clipper chip and key escrow systems?
Like every new technology, this comes at some cost. Cars pollute the
air. Cryptography can help criminals hide their activities. People
in the law enforcement and intelligence communities are going to look
at this only in their own terms. But even with these costs, we still
can't stop this from happening in a free market global economy. Most
people I talk to outside of Government feel that the net result of
providing privacy will be positive.
President Clinton is fond of saying that we should "make change our
friend". These sweeping technological changes have big implications,
but are unstoppable. Are we going to make change our friend? Or are
we going to criminalize cryptography? Are we going to incarcerate
our honest, well-intentioned software engineers?
Law enforcement and intelligence interests in the Government have
attempted many times to suppress the availability of strong domestic
encryption technology. The most recent examples are Senate Bill 266
which mandated back doors in crypto systems, the FBI Digital
Telephony bill, and the Clipper chip key escrow initiative. All of
these have met with strong opposition from industry and civil liberties
groups. It is impossible to obtain real privacy in the information
age without good cryptography.
The Clinton Administration has made it a major policy priority to
help build the National Information Infrastructure (NII). Yet, some
elements of the Government seems intent on deploying and entrenching
a communications infrastructure that would deny the citizenry the
ability to protect its privacy. This is unsettling because in a
democracy, it is possible for bad people to occasionally get
elected-- sometimes very bad people. Normally, a well-functioning
democracy has ways to remove these people from power. But the wrong
technology infrastructure could allow such a future government to
watch every move anyone makes to oppose it. It could very well be
the last government we ever elect.
When making public policy decisions about new technologies for the
Government, I think one should ask oneself which technologies would
best strengthen the hand of a police state. Then, do not allow the
Government to deploy those technologies. This is simply a matter of
good civic hygiene.