Liason’s editorial about PGP
Liason’s editorial about PGP
This is an editorial from the Liaison / Arts Research Center newsletter, “1994 / Issue 4”, , editor. It is reprinted without permission.
Editorial: Pretty Good Privacy
There are countries where the ability to keep secrets from the government is illegal, where possession of encryption technology is punishable by death, and where the government cedes itself the right to know anything it wants about its citizens. In the US, there are people on both sides of the privacy debate, though few have proposed penalties as harsh as those in Iran or Iraq.
One side says, in effect, that the need of the police and other law enforcement agencies to catch terrorists and other criminals is more important than the right of the individual to have inviolable secrets. The other side believes that individual rights should not be abrogated to make law enforcement’s job easier.
We at Liaison support the latter view, but one does not need to take that position to appreciate the story of Philip Zimmermann, the man who put unbreakable, world-class encryption software in the hands of virtually anyone who wants it. With his software, you can store or transmit data via the Internet with full confidence that it cannot be deciphered by others.
In 1991 Senator Joseph Biden sponsored a law that would have required all US software and hardware technologies to be FBI accessible. Had the law passed, it would have forced companies to install a “back door” in any product that included encryption Government personnel would be able to read any messages from these machines or programs, whether encrypted or not.
When Philip Zimmermann, a computer consultant with a history of anti-war activism, heard this news, he despaired of America’s right to privacy. He began thinking about ways to prevent the passage of the law and came up, instead, with a way to making it irrelevant.
He put aside his work and began working on a new computer program, racing to provide, legally, unbreakable encryption before Biden’s bill became law. At least, he reasoned, his program would be in circulation for those who wanted it.
For months, Zimmermann applied himself totally. As he ran out of money, he had to take his son out of his private school and was on the verge of losing his house. But on June fifth, 1991, he uploaded his finished program, Pretty Good Privacy, to the Internet for all to use. Within hours, word of it reached the furthest reaches of the electronic frontier.
It became evident that Biden’s bill was not going to pass, perhaps in part because Zimmermann had demonstrated the inability of the government to control cryptological software in an electronic age. Trouble came to Philip almost immediately.
Despite the fact that Zimmermann’s patent lawyer had declared the program legal for free non-commercial distribution, the primary commercial licensee of an algorithm used in PGP disagreed. The algorithm in question was the Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) algorithm, developed at MIT and Stanford universities with federal funding.
PGP might have been doomed at that point had not another licensed holder of the rights to the RSA algorithm, ViaCrypt, joined forces with Zimmermann. ViaCrypt developed and offered an inexpensive commercial version of PGP for business use. This assured that there would be widespread use of PGP. Subsequent efforts by the primary license holder to revoke ViaCrypt’s license failed.
Widespread use of PGP still did not assure that the free non-commercial version of the program would survive. Zimmermann, a lone man on the verge of bankruptcy because of his legal struggles, could not afford an expensive legal challenge and could not have made the improvements and fixes that the freeware version required.
Unexpectedly, help came from a group of ideologically sympathetic MIT lawyers, who used the license their university held by virtue of developing the RSA algorithm to put together a completely and irrefutably legal version of the encryption program. It seems that PGP is here to stay.
Zimmermann, though, is less secure. The San Jose, California office of US Customs is currently conducting an investigation of him. The Customs prosecutor has issued a number of federal grand jury subpoenas and is considering an indictment of Zimmermann for illegally exporting restricted armaments. The armament in question is a portion of the encryption software that has been freely available internationally for decades.
According to Zimmermann, US Customs is taking the position that, because of the inability to stop international movement of programs and data on the Internet, domestic publication of encryption software in the US is the same as exportation.
The federal mandatory sentencing guidelines for this offense are 41 to 51 months in a federal prison. Zimmermann reports that when he reentered the US from London recently, Customs officials detained, strip-searched and interrogated him about the case without calling his lawyer.
One might think that, under these pressures, he might be maintaining a low profile. Instead, he is nearly finished with VoicePGP, a program that will provide virtually unbreakable encryption for telephone conversations. Voice PGP would make the Clipper chip, supported by the present administration but opposed by forces ranging from civil liberties organizations to Newt Gingrich and other incoming Republicans, obsolete.
Zimmermann claims the technological power to protect communications from government is more important today than it ever has been because of the ability of governments to scan electronic communications using new supercomputers on a hitherto undreamt-of scale. Even if it develops that we in the US have nothing to fear from our government, Philip Zimmermann has undeniably changed the information world. Consider this message sent to him via e-mail from someone in Latvia, on the day that Boris Yeltsin was going to war with his Parliament:
“Phil, I wish you to know: let it never be, but if dictatorship takes over Russia your PGP is wide spread from Baltic to Far East now and will help democratic people if necessary. Thanks.”
Zimmermann’s Pretty Good Privacy, it seems, has already accomplished some very good things for others. As for “Phil Zimmermann” himself, let’s hope that he is an exception to the law that no good deed goes unpunished.
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