About 20 years ago, American cryptographer Philip Zimmerman needed lawyers to defend himself against his government. He was distributing encryption software to the public. Bush Sr. law enforcement and intelligence officials saw his cryptography software (“PGP“) as a weapon (a “munition”) to be possessed only by the state and used against its enemies. If the government didn’t have this secret weapon, it was argued, then they’ve lost a valuable military advantage. What they didn’t understand however, is that encryption (though used for military purposes) was a shield, not a weapon.
Zimmerman claimed that tools for encryption, if kept from the public, would make it too easy to operate surveillance programs on citizens’ digital communications and therefore, put their 4th Amendment rights in jeopardy. He worried corrupt government officials might use the citizens’ lack of protection to spy on them even if they hadn’t done anything wrong. Similar to how some US politicians have attempted to justify the secret existence of PRISM, it was argued that laws around encryption needed to strike a “balance” between citizens’ privacy and national security. They said the public must be kept in the dark regarding encryption or the nation faced a security risk.
If we fast forward to the present, it’s easy to see (in retrospect) that the vilification of Zimmerman was harsh and unfair. More than twenty years later, we see that knowledge of encryption technology has provided the world’s masses with ways to securely do e-commerce and shield communication between those protecting human rights and attempting to avoid detection by brutal regimes. Today, few seem eager to cast stones at Zimmerman though in 1991, he was a very polarizing figure.
The recent behavior of Edward Snowden has led to a polarizing debate within the United States. Some label him as a “traitor” who is aiding enemies and putting America at risk (despite the lack of evidence). Others claim he’s a “hero” by revealing secret technical operations that the public deserves to know. After all, they’re the ones being monitored and recorded. I’m curious how Snowden will be characterized twenty years from now, long after the current and most recent US officials are gone.