Questioning Technology: Censorship & Privacy
Sometimes there is no room for compromise. That's the case with two of the most potent issues of our time. When it comes to privacy and free speech in the digital age, the moment has come to draw a line in the sand.As it usually is with politics, these issues are being muddied up for public consumption. Those who want to spy on our most private communications and reduce our language to Disneyesque blather say they want to protect children, stop terrorism and keep an eye on criminals. It's all a lie. The fact is they want free reign to open our mail and set limits as to what we can say. Philip Zimmermann, 41, an independent software designer living in Boulder, Colorado, has a clear bead on what the government wants. For the past three years he has been under a U.S. Justice Department investigation for allegedly exporting software that allows computer users to scramble their personal data.Early this year the government announced, without giving a reason, that they had decided not to prosecute Zimmermann. Though it was a personal victory for a true cyberspace hero, the chilling issues behind the case remain unresolved.Zimmermann wrote a powerful software program called "Pretty Good Privacy," or PGP. It allows average computer users to scramble their email and other documents to assure privacy. The program is so powerful that even the Cold War encryption experts can't crack it. What makes Zimmermann so unique is that he gives the program away for free. It's part of a personal campaign to make it simple for anyone to insure the privacy of their computer files.Zimmermann's trouble began back in 1991 when someone put a copy of PGP on the Internet, allowing it to get past U.S. borders. The government claimed that such an act violated U.S. export control laws that classify encryption software as a weapon and place tight restrictions on its export outside the United States.The government blamed Zimmermann, who denied putting PGP on the Net. Though the feds have dropped their investigation, the highly controversial issue of exporting encryption software remains unresolved.One of the reasons the government continues the export restriction is that it wants to hold a set of software "keys" that will allow law enforcement officials armed with a court order to read any scrambled computer file. This proposed government "backdoor" into private communications has been bitterly opposed by privacy advocates and the computer industry.Though Zimmermann would like to find a compromise with the government on this issue, he says this one seems to have no middle ground. "We always come back to the question: Should the government be able to listen in on our communications? Should they have the keys to our encryption?"They want those keys," he continued. "If they get them, then we won't have our privacy. If they don't get the keys, then we will have our privacy. It's that simple."Encryption technology -- long the domain of spies and military intelligence -- is a subject so arcane that it can make the eyes glaze over. However, the implications of its future use to protect confidential digital communications is enormous."Right now I can send you a letter and you can read the letter by opening the envelope. Unless someone else opened the envelope as it traveled between us, the letter has remained private," said Zimmermann. "But with (computer) filtering techniques, electronic mail can be read en masse. That's dangerous...an Orwellian kind of technology." Only encryption can stop such third party filtering. That, said Zimmermann, is why he creates and gives away encryption software. "It's civic hygiene...a way to keep a good government from going bad."Though the current political climate is harsh to issues of privacy and free speech, Zimmermann said it is important that "we hold the candidates' feet to the fire" and ask some tough questions in the coming elections."It's hard to maintain the status quo on these issues because the status quo is unstable," he said. "If we do nothing, things are going to get very, very bad."Unfortunately, some very bad things are dangerously close to becoming public policy. Sweeping telecommunications legislation, which Zimmermann terms "a monstrous law," could be enacted by Congress in only a matter of weeks. It represents the government's first crude attempt to censor speech on the Internet and commercial on-line services.The Digital Telephony Bill, passed by Congress on its final day in 1994, gives feds the power to simultaneously tap one out of every 1,000 phone lines in some areas of the country. The legislation requires (and pays) phone companies to modify their equipment to ease the job of wiretapping of digital communications systems. Though it's too late to stop the so-called "DigiTel" legislation, the good news is the money needed to pay the phone companies to make their plants wiretap-friendly has yet to be appropriated. Major opposition is lining up to stop the appropriation, a backdoor attempt to render the legislation useless. Threats to privacy and free speech haven't waited for new laws to kick in. Online services -- fueling the climate of fear -- have joined the Big Brother act. CompuServe recently announced the global blackout of about 200 Internet newsgroups which German prosecutors deemed too sexually provocative. America Online has attempted to censor the content of poets who once flourished on its service.Our reaction to this right wing assault on civil liberties should be swift and enthusiastic. It should be no less passionate than that of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Defiance, civil disobedience, aggressive protest, boycotts and public education are called for.A boycott of all Internet connections through CompuServe and America Online would send their corporate owners a message. We choose what we read, not the censors. If these on-line services don't eliminate all censorship, we should eliminate them by collectively taking our business elsewhere.Now that free encryption technology is out of the bag, its use should be encouraged on a mass scale. Imagine the panic that would overtake the government if they lost the ability to spy on a substantial number of citizens.It's important that in these complex and dangerous times that we recognize the subterfuges and keep our eyes on the prize. The issues here are not children, crime or terrorists. They are simply privacy and free speech. Our ancestors died for these rights. Are we going to give them away without a fight?