Someone To Watch
By J.D. TUCCILLE
mostNEWYORK Senior Editor
f a government official told you that you could put a lock on the front door to your home only if you gave him a copy of the key, you might be a bit taken aback. You might be even more troubled if a police officer dropped by and vetoed your choice of a lock because it would be too tough for them to batter down not that they would do such a thing unless they really needed to, of course.
And imagine your reaction if finally, after considerable debate back and forth over the first two demands, the chief of police announced that locks are more hassle than they're worth, and private citizens shouldn't be allowed to use them at all.
But that's roughly how the situation now stands with encryption, a technology that allows people to ensure that their e-mail messages, transported over the Internet and through a host of strange computers, can be read only by the intended party. Despite its high-tech name, encryption is nothing more than a reliable, electronic envelope within which to wrap private messages.
But perhaps because these electronic envelopes do so reliably block prying eyes, the Clinton administration has worked overtime to halt the delopment and use of encryption. First, encryption was legally classified as "munitions," requiring a hard-to-get license to export. Next, the administration, in cahoots with the ultra-secretive National Security Agency, pushed the Clipper chip. This little Trojan horse is a computer chip that, once inserted in computers, telephones, and the like would scramble messages and keep them safe from prying eyes except for those of the U.S. government.
American companies, already put off by the feds' voyeuristic demands, also had to worry about overseas customers who saw no good reason to share their private thoughts with America's spy agencies when they could purchase complete secrecy from Japanese, German, and English firms. So much for Clipper.
Subsequent proposals suffered the same fate as software firms gave thumbs down and some licensed their technology to foreign companies in a risky end-run around the law.
In an apparent effort to strong-arm privacy activists and the industry into line, FBI Director Louis Freeh (heir to J. Edgar's throne, if not his wardrobe) recently told the Senate that he may seek a ban on the domestic use of strong encryption quite possibly the first time a law enforcement agent has suggested jailing people for not exposing themselves to the public. According to Freeh, it's harder to find bad guys if he can't read our mail.
Freeh was probably paving the way for the administration's latest encryption proposal dubbed Clipper IV in honor of its still-born siblings. This latest pronouncement would permit American firms to sell semi-powerful software anywhere in the world, but only if they built in backdoors and surrendered the keys to the government under court order.
Those tumbleweeds you see are where foreign customers would line up to purchase such a product.
But even if Clinton and the police-state gnomes at the NSA and FBI succeed in nailing the coffin lid down over the U.S. encryption industry, private citizens world-wide have access to uncompromised protection for their personal messages largely through the efforts of one man.
You see, thrown into the mix is cryptologist Philip Zimmerman. About the time that encryption was being classified as akin to nuclear weapons secrets, Zimmerman wrote a simple, powerful program called PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy. This program, er, somehow found its way onto the Internet and around the world in an enormous electronic raised middle-finger to the control freaks in D.C.
It's still there, and more powerful now than ever. And it was joined about a year ago by a new product called PGPfone, which lets you make encrypted phone calls through an Internet-linked computer. As you might guess, Zimmerman found himself in the hot seat, but the case against him was dropped as his following grew and the possibility of producing a martyr became a certainty.
Zimmerman and like-minded folks have now spawned the cypherpunk movement, which seeks to ensure that electronic envelopes stay firmly wrapped around our electronic mail and so much the better if they raise the ambient blood pressure at a few federal agencies. Even if the big companies knuckle under, cypherpunks are sure to keep us supplied with a steady flow of successors to PGP.
So decide for yourself. Would you really refrain from bolting a lock to your front door just to keep the boys in blue happy?
What's so different about your mail?