Free encryption takes a big step

Does FreeS/WAN herald the crypto-libertarian utopia?

By Andrew Leonard
Published April 16, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

International borders -- gone! The IRS -- crippled! Big government -- on the run!
And all because of the spread of cryptography. It's one of the enduring fantasies
of hardcore Net-libertarianism: Securely encrypted protection of
communications in cyberspace will free humanity from Big Brother.

On April 14th, the Internet took a giant step toward such a future
after the release of FreeS/WAN 1.0, a free software
program aimed at facilitating the secure encryption of data on the Net. It's
the brain-child of two libertarian philanthropists, at least one of whom, John Gilmore, has long
advocated using encryption to resist government intrusions.

As it stands now, FreeS/WAN is designed to run on a computer inserted
between a local area network and the Internet. It also requires, according
to FreeS/WAN programmer Henry Spencer, "prearrangement" with another network
running the software for it to work. But Spencer predicts that FreeS/WAN
functionality will eventually be included in software that can run on a
single user's computer.

The FreeS/WAN software was written outside of the United States, primarily
in Canada, in order to get around U.S. laws that forbid the export of
powerful encryption tools. Could the software be, eventually, a tool for
making such laws meaningless? That's certainly the hope of its designers. Although not all citizens of cyberspace may regard this sort of crypto-libertarian
utopia as the ideal future society, such a future certainly seems more plausible now.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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