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Phil Zimmermann Is At It Again October 19, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software tools, Technology and Culture.
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I am old enough to remember when Phil Zimmermann released Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, as open source, circa 1991. I followed his strange but true legal travails with the US government for several years, in which he was under investigation for illegal munitions exports (PGP encryption), yet never arrested. It was only after three stressful years that the US government concluded, well something, and told him that he was able to go about his business.

Now there is a mobile app called Silent Circle that employs the same encryption on a phone, for voice, email, and text. PGP remains, well, pretty good, with an awful lot of computing horsepower and time required to break it.
PGP employs public/private key encryption. I have a key to encrypt, which is public. Only my trusted partners have the private key, to decrypt. The keys are typically 64-bit (old), 128-bit, or more.

I’m also old enough to remember the Clipper chip, a microprocessor that had embedded strong encryption for communications purposes. The catch was that the chip was designed by the NSA, and while the encryption was valid, it also included a “back door” that enabled the US Government to tap into it (purportedly with a court order, though I have no doubt that it could be done otherwise, for purposes other than criminal prosecution). The effort failed miserably, as computer and phone makers declined to use it, and other parties railed against it.

The Clipper chip was obviously ill-conceived (though, oddly enough, apparently not to the government). But I am in favor of law enforcement, though without the spectre of big brother government. These trends will always conflict, and it is right that they do so. Still, it is also right that freedom of, well, speech win out in this argument, even in the face of criminal activity. Let us find a different way to catch our criminals.

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