Monday, May 22, 2006

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Imagine how surprised I was this morning to be told by National Public Radio that a "hacker" had released an encryption program that could shield the content of private telephone calls, particularly since I had just read the morning's New York Times story about the creator of one of the first widely available high-quality encryption programs PGP, which stands for "pretty good protection."

"Voice Encryption May Draw U.S. Scrutiny" points out that Zfone, which is designed for Voice over Internet Protocol users, faces negative attention from skeptical government monitors who want to be able to collect information from the conversations of possible terrorists. Of course, for NPR to call Phil Zimmermann a "hacker" is a pretty hilarious category error, given that this longtime software engineer is the company's CEO. PGP even comes with a User's Guide that actually explains how the technology works.

Zimmerman makes a number of interesting rhetorical appeals in favor of distributing encryption tools as widely as possible to the general public. For example, he publishes letters from human rights groups who say that Zimmerman's technology protects political dissidents.

My guess is that encryption advocates will eventually use some of the same self-defense / protection against governments that abuse their power arguments that gun rights spokespeople currently deploy. After all, as Zimmerman notes in one of his on-line essays, one company already sells a low-cost package that "cracks the built-in encryption schemes used by WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, MS Excel, Symphony, Quattro Pro, Paradox, MS Word, and PKZIP. It doesn't simply guess passwords–it does real cryptanalysis. Some people buy it when they forget their password for their own files. Law enforcement agencies buy it too, so they can read files they seize."

On the same electronic front page was the NY Times story about the latest enormous virtual heist of private information, "Personal Data of 26.5 Million Veterans Stolen." Perhaps it is the commercial uses of information and not the politically subversive ones that we should be most worried about.



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