When NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden wanted to talk to reporter Glenn Greenwald, he insisted that they use encrypted chat. Unfortunately, Greenwald didn’t know how to go about setting that up.
In fact, he needed a tutorial in how to do it. Indeed, many people do. I was looking at the download figures of various encryption programs, and they are not impressive (about 52,000 for one popular program). Apparently, this approach to securing conversations is far from mainstream.
Why should anyone bother? Encrypted chat is like the ‘cone of silence’ in the old Get Smart series, except that it actually works. It makes conversations impossible for outsiders to listen to. So far as snoops are concerned, the conversation might as well have not happened.
How can we be sure? The best case is precisely that Snowden trusted it. He knew exactly what the NSA could surveil and what was invisible. He knew that this level of encryption was NSA-proof. Otherwise, he would not have taken the risk.
Why would anyone but a whistle-blower need it? Let’s say you want to talk about a business deal with a remote party and it is extremely important that there be no security breaches. You would be crazy to use email, but even chat is a mistake. One party has a full record of it even aside from all issues of surveillance.
You don’t have to be breaking the law to use this technology. It might be useful for talking about health records or household finances or some issue that might be embarrassing to have on record or dragged up and put in your face later. There is a good reason for privacy. Encryption makes it possible.
The most common encryption standard today, Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), was created by Phil Zimmermann in 1991. As an anti-nuclear peace activist, he wanted to make it possible for people to communicate with each other even in totalitarian countries that prohibited speech.
To his amazement, it was the US government that tried to stop the code from being released. In 1993, he was prosecuted for illegal export of munitions (go figure).
A huge protest ensued. The code swirled around the internet like a crazy global storm — a clear sign that the internet cannot be stopped from distributing information. Even more strikingly, MIT Press published the entire code in a book (that actually sold rather well) that was protected under the First Amendment. In time, the government backed down. It was a great victory for technological progress and the freedom of speech.
In other words, if the government had had its way, we might not have this type of encryption at all. But we do have it, thanks to a series of simultaneous discoveries of the logic of public-key cryptography in the 1970s.
(From Wikipedia, I’m amazed to learn that William Stanley Jevons, economist of the late 19th-century marginal revolution in economics, actually anticipated the logic of public-key cryptography.)
PGP is not the only one. There is OTR (Off-the-Record) Messaging as well. Both go far beyond the encryption used in most Web commerce (SSL), which only masks the communications between your computer and a company’s servers, but such companies still maintain the data.
The technology has been around for a long time. But users have mostly not bothered. That could change in light of all the news about government snooping. For some communications in the future, people might be willing to give up some convenience of commercial programs for the security of encrypted communications.
By the way, here is an obvious and quick answer to the NSA’s claim that it must harvest as much data as possible as a way to stop terrorism and protect the American way of life from dangerous criminals. If you are a dangerous criminal or terrorist plotting an attack and you are not entirely stupid, it is very likely that you would choose cryptographic communications over commercial services.
Hence, the very communications that the NSA supposedly seeks are the ones that it cannot get. What, then, is the point behind the huge data centres and the invasions on everyone else’s liberty? The purpose is to control the rest of us and shore up its power. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to accept that truth. You need only have your eyes open.
If government criminalises private communications, only government and criminals will have private communications.
A friend wrote me the other day and said, ‘I just had a startling revelation. Public-key cryptography is the only thing standing between us and a totalitarian state.’ That is sobering indeed.
This is why it is so important for any freedom lover to pay special attention to the uses of cryptography.
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This article originally appeared on the Markets and Money US edition.
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