Nitin Govil on 24 Jan 2001 22:42:53 -0000

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<nettime> Salon on crypto

>From (1/24/01)...

Crypto for the people
In Steven Levy's new book, paranoid freedom fighters armed with weapons
of encryption face off against Big Brother.

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By Andrew Leonard

Jan. 24, 01 | Like a magnet designed to attract reporters, the crypto
subculture that flourishes on the Internet exerts an irresistible
attraction. All the elements for a great story are there. Big Brother
matched up against libertarian "cypherpunks." Cops terrified about robbers
they can't wiretap. There's even the Church of Scientology waging war
against an anonymous remailer in Finland. What more could you want?

Cryptography has been variously considered a weapon, a tool for building
utopia, a bulletproof vest and a numbers game sure to enchant the
arithmetically inclined. It is also big business, especially since the
emergence of the Internet as a worldwide phenomenon. As Steven Levy writes
in "Crypto," by 00 "the once forbidden technology was suddenly the new
panacea. It was envisioned that the solution to the pirated downloading of
music and films would be ... crypto. In addition, crypto was the secret
sauce of protected corporate discussions used in 'virtual private
networks,' a hot business trend that allowed snoop-proof conferencing. The
movement of medical records to the on-line world would be possible only
with crypto. And crypto was expected to be an essential component in the
next generation of the Internet, where all of us would communicate with
non-personal-computer 'devices' ranging from palmtops to phones to kitchen
appliances. We would be wired and wirelessed up the wazoo, and crypto
would be our privacy safety net."

And who better to tell us the story of how "Code Rebels Beat the
Government -- Saving Privacy in the Digital Age" than Steven Levy? If only
for his book "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution," Levy enjoys a
reputation as one of the premier chroniclers of all things digital. The
best introduction to the unleashing of the personal computer, bar none,
"Hackers" is a must read for anyone who cares about how digital technology
has changed our lives. Two of Levy's follow-ups, "Artificial Life: How
Computers Are Transforming Our Understanding of Evolution and the Future
of Life" and "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the
Computer That Changed Everything," solidified his standing. Levy can
explain complex subjects, bring to life the driest geek and weave
narrative out of the most unlikely of technological obscurities. A new
book by Levy is sure to be a hot commodity.

"Crypto" plays by the same rules of his earlier books. From the lead
sentence, "Mary Fischer loathed Whitfield Diffie on sight," one knows one
is in the hands of a master. Many people have attempted to explain public
key encryption for a lay audience -- Levy is one of the few who makes the
mathematics comprehensible. From the sorry tale of the Clipper Chip to the
saga of Phil Zimmerman's fight to get encryption power to the people,
"Crypto" is eminently readable and lucid.

But "Crypto" doesn't seethe with the same kind of excitement that
"Hackers" or "Artificial Life" or "Insanely Great" do. Part of the problem
may be that much of his subject matter has been covered in depth over the
last few years -- not least by Levy himself. Another issue is that the
mathematics involved are arcane and not easily digestible. You can read
only so many times about how Alice and Bob verify each other's identity
through cryptographic legerdemain before your head starts spinning. But a
more fundamental problem has to do with the basic psychology of
cryptography. While the tales of the personal computer or the Macintosh
are propelled by the joy that the original hackers felt when delivering
their creations to the public, by the sense of liberation and empowerment
that accrue from the spread of the PC, crytographers are fueled by darker
stuff. Paranoia, fear, distrust of authority and anger -- at the IRS, the
NSA, the intrusive actions of big corporations -- are what keep
cypherpunks hopped up. And those who may not be angry or paranoid are a
different kind of cipher altogether, more comfortable with mind-bendingly
huge numbers than they are with other people. The world of Crypto is,
ultimately, cryptic. It's a hard sell.

Of course, the hardcore cypherpunks, like John Gilmore, one of the
earliest employees of Sun Microsystems, or Phil Zimmerman, the author of
the software program Pretty Good Privacy, or Tim May, the libertarian
survivalist, would indeed argue that cryptography is a liberating and
empowering tool; that, in fact, the blessings bestowed upon humanity by
the computer and the Internet cannot be secured without widely accessible,
ironclad encryption tools. Some cypherpunks will even contend that the
cryptographic future is one in which all instruments of authority lose
their power to inflict their will upon individuals, thus setting in motion
an era of "crypto anarchy" that permits the highest possible levels of
individual freedom.

"Crypto" is most interesting when it focuses on this part of the story.
Witness Eric Hughes, one of the first Internet-enabled crypto-activists.
"Now, at the dawn of the Internet, he was figuring out how he could use
codes to fortify the information age. His ultimate goal was combining
pure-market capitalism and freedom fighting. In his world view,
governments -- even allegedly benign ones like the United States -- were a
constant threat to the well-being of citizens. Individual privacy was a
citadel constantly under attack by the state. The great miracle was that
the state could be thwarted by algorithms. 'It used to be that you could
get privacy by going to the physical frontier, where no one would bother
you,' he said. 'With the right application of cryptography, you can again
move out to the frontier -- permanently.'"

But the freedom envisioned by Eric Hughes is a bit different from the
freedom conferred upon users by, say, a Macintosh, or SimCity, or some
cool mutating genetic algorithms -- the kind of freedoms Levy writes about
in his previous books. It's not the freedom to create, but a freedom to
conspire, to lock doors and wall oneself off from the outside world.
Cryptographic freedom is based on the premise that the world is out to get
you, and you better have plenty of crypto tools to protect you along with
your guns and ammo next to your cans of beans and portable generator.

Then again, like the man said, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean
they aren't out to get you. Maybe we all should be paranoid. But the main
weakness of "Crypto" is its failure to pursue in greater depth the odd
negativity that is fostered in the world of cryptography, to investigate
more closely the consequences and/or possibilities inherent in crypto
freedom fighting. Unfortunately, we don't even get to the chapter "Crypto
Anarchy" until about two-thirds of the way through the book. And after a
review of the Clipper Chip and the defeat of export controls, Levy also
doesn't follow through on an investigation of whether the goals that the
cypherpunks are pursuing actually will result in greater individual

Yes, as the subtitle notes, the "code rebels" did "beat the government."
They defeated attempts to install the Big Brotherish Clipper Chip
technology into everyday phones and computers. And they successfully ended
the era in which American corporations and individuals were prohibited
from exporting so-called strong crypto to other countries. But what about
ending the power of the IRS and destroying the concept of the
nation-state? What about protecting private citizens from the depredations
of jack-booted thugs? What about untraceable e-cash unleashing a new era
of total capitalist freedom?

If anything, the dawn of a new millennium makes such possibilities seem
more unlikely than ever before, despite the progress made by cypherpunks.
One could argue that the main achievement of widespread cryptography has
been to make the Web safe for regular old e-commerce. Few people think
twice about inputting a credit card number to buy books at Amazon or
tickets at Travelocity. (One could also argue that cryptographic security
isn't even necessary there -- few people seem to think twice about giving
their credit card numbers to complete strangers over the phone without any
technological protection.)

The average person cares about computers and the Internet. But does the
average person care about crypto? Probably not. Should we? Probably yes.
We should care about the information being gathered on us by corporations
and governments. And we should care about whether we have tools to protect
that information from being assembled and used against us, or at us.

But should we live in fear, wracked with paranoia, and devote ourselves to
shrouding every action in secrecy? One would hope not. And yet that's the
back story to the rise of cryptography -- a story that could have used a
few more chapters focused on it, in "Crypto."

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      About the writer
      Andrew Leonard is a senior editor at and author of
Salon's Free Software Project, an online book-in-progress exploring the
history and culture of the free software movement.

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