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Freedom through Encryption


When the history of the modern struggle for liberty is written, Philip Zimmermann will be celebrated as a true hero. To understand why, we must explore the issue of privacy in the information age. It is a story that should the thrill the heart of every lover of liberty.

The government has always been able to read our mail. After all, it controls the postal service. But reading everyone’s mail would be a big job. The government can target a few individuals and steam open their mail. But it would be impractical for the government to routinely scan everyone’s mail to see what the American people are up to. The volume is too great. Zimmermann says the government would have to hire half the population to read the mail of the other half.

That is not the case with electronic mail (e-mail). It now would be cheap and easy for the government to monitor virtually every e-mail user. And as time goes on, that will include most, if not all, of us. The government is capable of using its sophisticated electronic resources to search for keywords or specific names in the entire volume of e-mail that traverses the nation’s telephone lines and airwaves each day. No one’s messages would be safe from the government’s prying eyes — unless those messages are put into a secret code, or encrypted.

Encryption is the great threat to the government’s ability to read our e-mail — and the government knows it. So it does not want the American people to be able to encrypt their electronic communications securely. It wants to have the key to everyone’s encryption code just in case it needs to sneak a look. That is where the infamous Clipper Chip comes in. The Clinton administration floated the idea of requiring the computer industry to install a special chip in its products that would, in effect, give the government the key. The outcry was deafening from the growing number of people concerned about privacy in the computer age. The government tried to soothe them by promising that it would not be able to use the key without a warrant. Computer buffs were not pacified.

Because of the resistance to Clipper, the Clinton administration decided to go the volunteer route. It is urging the industry to adopt the Clipper standard as a matter of good citizenship. Resistance continues. But the voluntary nature of the Clinton policy is deceptive. If the government tells computer makers that they must use Clipper if they want to sell their products to the government, the companies will be strongly influenced to install Clipper. None of them will want to foreclose the opportunity to be a government supplier.

Thus it seems that no one will be able to prevent government snoopers from reading his electronic communications. That’s where Philip Zimmermann comes in.

Zimmermann is offended by what the government is up to. A former antinuclear-weapons activist and self-described libertarian, he decided to make a preemptive strike at the government’s ability to snoop. Using published encryption and mathematical principles, he wrote a program that brings virtually fail-safe encryption to everyone. Modestly, he calls it Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). Despite the name, word has it that the government is stymied — it cannot crack the code. Experts in the field believe the government does not have the computing power it would take to decrypt mail processed by PGP. Thanks to Zimmermann, the government is locked out.

Zimmermann next struck a big blow for liberty: he started giving the program away to American citizens. He calls PGP political software and urges everyone to encrypt their e-mail in solidarity against the government. His rationale is that if everyone would encrypt everything, no one person’s encryption would be conspicuous. It is the safety-in-numbers principle.

The next chapter in this story begins to make things dicey for Zimmermann. Someone — not Zimmermann — posted PGP on a computer bulletin board in the United States that is linked to the Internet, an international network of computer networks. Once something is on the Internet, people from all over the world can receive (download) it. People outside the United States have been downloading PGP, and it is becoming (or has already become) the world’s standard for encryption.

The government, which was already unhappy about PGP, blew a fuse when the program got onto the Net. National-security officials claim that since foreigners can download PGP, it has been exported. It is illegal to export encryption software without a government license. The law classifies such software as munitions. So Zimmermann could face a federal indictment and more than ten years in prison if he is convicted. Zimmermann’s response is that he did not put the program on the Internet and that he never sold it.

The Zimmermann case shows that the law is breaking down under the advance of technology. It is apparently illegal for someone traveling abroad to give someone else a copy of PGP. But how would the authorities know? Will they begin looking for the software in every traveler’s luggage and laptop computer?

The ban on the export of cryptography hurts American software firms because they are reluctant to make products they cannot export. Moreover, foreign buyers will be reluctant to buy American computers to which the U.S. government holds a key. American businessmen working in foreign countries are now at a disadvantage because their e-mail back home can be read by foreign governments seeking to help their own domestic firms. Zimmermann says that Disney was hampered when it was negotiating over EuroDisney in France because the French government read its unencrypted e-mail back to the United States and learned the company’s negotiating strategy.

Disney’s problem shows that the U.S. government’s interference with cryptography can harm anyone, not just political activists or tax evaders. A global economy in the computer age demands secure encryption — especially from the world’s governments.

What can be done about this? The law banning export of cryptography should be repealed forthwith. Continuation of the ban is silly. PGP is based on published principles. Foreigners can get that information in a library. The Internet has no national boundaries. It embodies the classical-liberal ideal of the free movement of goods and ideas. It is the electronic equivalent of the pre-World War I days when people could travel the world without passports. The Internet might have its origins in the U.S. military (it would have come into existence eventually anyway). But today it is an instance of the spontaneous, decentralized free market that no one person or group can control. Government efforts to stifle cryptography are a last, desperate attempt to maintain a grip on something that is intrinsically uncontrollable. The irony is that the more the government tries to keep the technology from running away, the greater the resistance and the more creative the rebellion. The government cannot win this fight. But it can harass decent people and degrade our well-being in its losing effort.

The authorities say that they have to have some means of control because the world is plagued by criminals and terrorists. As Zimmermann suggests, that is like saying that all physical mail should have to be on postcards or else the bad guys will seal their secrets in envelopes. No halfway intelligent person would accept that argument. In testimony before a congressional subcommittee last year, Zimmermann said:

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.

When Russia was in the throes of a coup a few years ago, Zimmermann received a thank-you note from freedom fighters stating that if Russia falls into dictatorship, PGP will help keep the forces of liberty alive. Zimmermann is proud of that note. As he puts it, people in the former communist countries know the dangers of government — and they wonder why the people of the West do not.

Philip Zimmermann has taken a big risk for freedom by supplying the electronic envelope that will keep the government’s eyes off our communications. Let us hope he is not martyred for his valiant service. We should take his advice and encrypt in solidarity. And think of Philip Zimmermann when you do. The world needs more people like him.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.