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Appeared on: Monday, May 16, 2005
Fighting Big Brother

1. Page 1
When some time ago Prince Charles’s and Lady D’s private phone calls were leaked to the public, everyone realized that in the era of informatics even the walls have ears. Apparently, their “safe” mobiles could not keep their secrets safe. Someone heard, recorded, and made a popular reader’s item of them in London’s tabloids…

Historic experience has proved that the biggest…ears are in the possession of governmental services be them either the CIA, or in the case of the heirs to the British Throne the M16. As revealed a while later, it was some British Intelligence agents who leaked a big part of those telephone conversations to the press with the purpose of benefiting from them. What was thought to be a telephone call surveillance due to reasons of “national interest”, ended up to a few millions of pounds being pocketed by some people.

The biggest eavesdroppers in history have now started being overwhelmed with uneasiness. The cause to their headache has its roots to modern technology and cryptography is the name of their nightmare. An incredible dispute has set off in the USA between the government that insists on maintaining its right to surveillance and the citizens who, from their part, are striving to protect their privacy. The focal point of this dispute that has been brought to law-courts, has been centered in a computer program called “Pretty Good Privacy”, along with Phil Zimmerman its 41 year-old-programmer.

2. Page 2

Let’s take things from the beginning…

There is one and only basic feature in digital communications carried out as they are, either through new generation telephone apparatuses, or through mobiles, or through computer networks: what they practically convey is numbers. Anything we key on a computer, or utter on the phone, is turned into digits, carried through the line and decoded when reaching the receiver. Yet, it is possible that these numbers are “jumbled” in the source of transmission, on the grounds of an equation called the algorithm, to be rearranged in their proper order again when reaching their destination with the help of the same equation. If, in the meantime, one overrides the transmission in question and is not in possession of the algorithm, is by no means capable of comprehending the message.

The technology linked to ciphering as well as deciphering messages is rather old but the high cost involved in it has made a state monopoly out of it. With the discovery of the Personal Computer and the Digital Telephone Device the process has been simplified indeed. Now anyone can encode their messages providing they are in possession of the appropriate program. This way the state lost both its privilege to the monopoly of cryptography and the ability to spy upon the just and the unjust at the same time…

This “danger” became visible at an early stage by the USA secret services. Since 1979, Bobby Inman, head of the NSA-National Security Agency (an organization whose existence was unknown to everyone prior to 1966)-had been persisting in his department assuming control over all cryptography programs, congruent with the one over nuclear weapons, handed over to the Pentagon! Yet, his dictates had not been heard till it was too late. The science of cryptography was breaking away from academic institutions and, mainly through the Internet, spreading to the public.

In 1990 the American government tried to pass a bill against crime. One of its provisions allowed for the codes connected with products of cryptography to be readable by the state authorities. General clamor broke out, but that was not enough for the bill to be revoked, on the grounds of “national interest”…

3. Page 3
Yet, a month before the bill was voted, in December 1990, a cryptography program under the name of “PGP”(Pretty Good Privacy) made its appearance in the Internet. The NASA attempted to break its code with no success whatsoever. According to its programmer, Phil Zimmermann, the program was in the hands of thousands of Americans within hours. The very next day he received a PGP coded message from overseas. The “mutiny” had been accomplished. Dozens of computers logged on the Net gave away the program to those who were interested. The bill was revoked, but hell opened its gates to Zimmermann…

Almost at once, the USA services made their move against him. The old hippy was not entirely unknown to them. In the 1980s he was apprehended twice for joining in anti-nuclear protest marches. Since he could not be charged with creating the program (the bill had not been passed anyway) or sending coded messages (they are a form of expressing one’s ideas and therefore protected by the constitutional orders pertaining to freedom of expression) we was indicted for illegally exporting high tech weapons! Products of cryptography are included in the same list as…F16s, laser bombs and so on. Their exportation needs special permit issued by the State Department! Of course that kind of legislation is schizophrenic. Since the program is lawfully in the hands of millions of users in the United States and can be downloaded to a single floppy disc or to the hard disc of a laptop, not to mention the Internet, there is no way it can be restricted within the geographical boundaries of this country. As far as Zimmermann has said, “it is as if one were trying to ban the New York Times export, or to lay an embargo on the wind…” The case is being under preliminary investigation…

Seemingly, this dispute about cryptography that has broken out in the USA might look like… “an exercise in democracy”, but in other countries, possessing “Pretty Good Privacy” is a matter of life and death. The organizations for the protection of human rights in Salvador and Guatemala have been teaching their members how to use them. Secret services in these countries are pretty serious when doing their job. Amnesty International encodes all its messages in PGP to protect its agents in authoritative regimes. “In case a dictatorship imposes its rule, all democrats from the Baltic to Siberia shall be able to freely communicate with the help of the PGP. We do thank you” a Latvian wrote to Zimmerman when the August 1991 coup broke out in Moscow.

4. Page 4


An algorithm is a rule defining the content as well as the arrangement of the operations needed for the solution of a mathematical problem repeating itself. (Victor Peckelis, Cybernetics, From A to Z, Gutenberg Editions, 1986)

On the looks of it, the phrase EUXWXV LV D IULHQG is a nonsensical one. Yet, it is encoded in the system used by Julius Cesar in the messages he dispatched to his generals. Every letter is the fourth in sequence from the initial one. Thus, instead of B he used E, in the place of R he used U and so on and so forth. This transference procedure of the initial figure to its third sequential constitutes the algorithm of the message. This algorithm can be mathematically defined under the following equation: y=x-3. Number 3 is the key to the algorithm needed to decode the message above: “BRUTUS IS A FRIEND”…

Of course the algorithms used today are infinitely more complex and their keys are not just digits but equations with random numbers, making impossible any attempts to decode all messages sent, by other people than their producers…

5. Page 5


“ An apparition is floating over the modern world. It is the ghost of crypto-anarchism…”

This is how the cypherpunks manifesto starts unfolding. The cypherpunks are the most ardent group in favor of the citizens’ rights to use any cryptography products. The author of the aforesaid manifesto is by no means a desolate anarchist, but a multi-millionaire ex-physicist working for the Intel company who, at 34, decided to retire since he had made enough money to secure a life free of any financial problems whatsoever. Timothy May (he is in his mid-forties now) along with 29- year-old Eric Hugues (one of the brightest minds in modern cryptography), are the soul of this new liberal movement. Their aim is to conserve privacy in the era of informatics. “One of the biggest issues of the new era is electronic transaction” they state in one of their articles “ While traditional transactions via paper money are in process no one can detect our preferences in relation with what we consume. Keeping a watch on somebody’s electronic transactions (a pretty easy case provided they are not ciphered), the films they see, the books they buy and so on, one can easily create their psychological or political profile. No one can be absolutely certain that the Big Brother is not peeping on them. The answer to this threat is no other than cryptography. (…) Governments all over the world are claiming the monopoly of this science and bring forward all kinds of obstacles to its spreading…”

Thus, the aim set by the cypherpunks is to succumb that sort of resistance and to spread ciphering tools to wider population strata. “Rise”, May concludes with his neo-liberal manifesto, “you’ve got nothing to lose but the barbed wire keeping you within”

Why cryptography cannot be banned

It might seem a paradox, but the only course of action governments are capable of assuming is to control the production or the trafficking of powerful ciphering machines. Transmission as well as reception of encoded messages is impossible to be banned. And this is due to several simple reasons:

- A ciphered message is protected by the freedom of speech principle. In other words, if someone wishes to utter or write “skey-whi” instead of “whiskey” one has every right to do so.

- By incriminating encoded messages’ transmission, wider forms of expression are being incriminated. When, for example, we wink when saying something, we are practically encoding the message we are uttering…

- It is impossible for someone to tell a ciphered message from the noise produced by the channel through which the message is being transmitted. That is, if a digital telephone line transmitting encoded messages is being bugged, the only thing to be heard is just an incessant “buzz”.

- Finally, modern cryptography is in the position of making use of the gaps in digital messages transmission so that while talking on a cellular phone one is able to transmit an encoded fax. The only irregularity an eavesdropper could be capable of detecting is a low buzzing sound that would be heard on the line anyway. Taking Timothy May’s assertions for granted, all the plans for the “invisible” Stealth bomber can fit in the gaps of just one digital tape produced by Michael Jacson…

6. Page 6

The dispute over Clipper Chip

Every development in technology has its dark side. Cryptography can protect the privacy of citizens, the fighters of freedom in dictatorships and so on. Yet it has extended its protection to outlaws in democratic countries. Terrorists along with drug dealers are now able to obtain safe communications to scheme their unlawful acts. That was the rationale (to others it was just an excuse) that drove President Clinton’s administration to bring forward the Clipper Chip legislation in April 1993. That chip which had to be installed in all tele-communication devices, (faxes, telephones, PCs etc) utilized the so called Skipjack algorithm the keys of which would be in the possession of only two state services. It looked as if it were the happy medium: on the one hand communications carried out by citizens would be protected from third party interventions and on the other hand judicial authorities would be in the possession of the ability, provided a warrant were produced, to get hold of the keys in case they wished to place certain people under surveillance.

However the problem lied in the fact that the Skipjack algorithm had been designed by the infamous National Security Agency (NSA) and was naturally kept in a status of confidentiality. Who would ever believe that that super secret service (even the level of the state financing allotted to them remains a top secret) had not left some “doors” open that would enable them to spy on any person they felt like without obtaining judicial authorization? “It is as if we had a peeping Tom hang the blinds in our home” John Perry Barlow, one of the activists for the protection of democratic rights in cyberspace had then put it.

In spite of the fact that the clipper chip installation was not expressly imposed by law the Clinton government “tricks” have contributed to the creation of an amazing, common front between the human rights organizations and informatics companies. Among others, the law provided that export licenses be issued only for the tele-communication products supplied with the aforesaid chip. Yet, would there be any non-American citizens who would buy a product that would-potentially-be at any time placed under the United States governmental surveillance? This way it was certain that all informatics enterprises were doomed. They would either be in no position of exporting their products unless supplied with the clipper chip or they would export them with no one buying.

Protest burgeoned, followed by the problems traced in the first chips by the 26-year-old AT&T researcher Mathew Blaze, driving thus the Clinton administration into disorderly retreat.

Now, everybody’s eyes are turned to a judicial inquiry ordered by the United States Customs service against Phil Zimmermann. The rule of court may put the PGP programmer away up to four years, but it will also be of critical gravity as far as the role of the state in modern society is concerned. Modern technology enforces the contrast between individual rights and the magnitude of state intervention. Who knows? It may so be, as the Economist has lately put it, that modern technology drives governments into realizing what modesty is about…



By Pashos Mandravelis.

email to P. Mandravelis

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