Crypto for the people

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

Published January 24, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

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 2000 "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 freedom.

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."

By Andrew Leonard

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

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