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Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government -- Saving Privacy in the Digital Age

Author: Steven Levy
Publisher: New York: Viking Press, 2001
Review Published: February 2002

 REVIEW 1: Iain Lang
 REVIEW 2: Lokman Tsui

Steven Levy's Crypto is a history of cryptography over the last thirty years, but what it describes is a sequence of contests. The contests in question occurred between certain agencies of the US Federal Government (and in particular the NSA, the National Security Agency, the body responsible for maintaining the US government's code-making and -breaking capacities) on the one side, and US citizens, as individuals or in groups, on the other. These contests centered on the right of private individuals to have access to means of encrypting electronic communication, access which the government wished to deny them. The government saw moves towards the granting of such access as detrimental to good governance, and in particular as likely to weaken state grip on the control of crime, espionage, and terrorism.

However, the private individuals and groups involved saw access to strong cryptography as crucial to maintaining privacy and preventing unwarranted intrusion -- by the state or by others -- into their affairs. Moreover, they saw it as central to the democratic process itself: Whitfield Diffie, a key figure in Levy's account, testified to the Senate that "[t]he legitimacy of laws in a democracy grows out of the democratic process . . . Unless the people are free to discuss the issues -- and privacy is an essential component of many of those discussions -- that process cannot take place" (256). (N.b.: Diffie himself has co-authored a book on cryptography, Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption.)

The clashes detailed by Levy represent a new form of an old conflict, a conflict between individuals and the state. Jean-Jacques Rousseau expounded the idea of the social contract, representative of a form of political organization entered into by individuals when leaving behind their natural state of savagery. In doing so, he stated, these individuals give up some of their personal independence in order to establish the government as a more effective guarantor of their remaining individual rights (see Lee and Newby 1983: 35). In this view the state should ideally act as a benevolent protector, defending the interests of citizens even if curtailing some of their activities.

Michel Foucault saw things differently, focusing on the way in which the physical control over individuals that was prevalent in traditional society had to give way, in modern society, to more complex forms of surveillance and control (Foucault 1977). In order to deal with the organization and management of people in modern society, of the information they represented (and which represented them), "a new, more powerful agent was needed to perform the task. The new agent was the state" (Bauman 1987: 42). Although Foucault did not view power as wholly negative, in this vision the state is more oppressor than enabler.

How the rise of the Internet and cyberculture will affect the balance of power in the individual-state relationship is unclear. Debate continues between those who think that the information revolution will bring about the end of the state, and those who think it will usher in Big Brother (see Calcutt 1999: 1-10). In the present instance, the subtitle of the book gives the ending away, at least as far as Levy sees it: "How the Code Rebels Beat the Government -- Saving Privacy in the Digital Age."

It is in considering these perspectives on the relationship between individuals and the state, and on how this relationship is perceived by the different parties involved, that Levy's account is of greatest interest. He describes how individuals tried again and again to extend the use of cryptography to protect their own and others' privacy, only to be faced, again and again, with interference from the NSA or other US government agencies. The chief item of contention was the right of government to use powerful cryptography techniques itself, while denying all but the weakest (and hence most easily broken) codes to the general public.

The "code rebels" saw this as an unwarranted state intrusion into private affairs, and demanded the right to use and distribute strong codes to secure their (and others') communications. These codes, developed privately and in the face of government attempts to stifle their spread and implementation, were much stronger than the NSA was prepared to allow. Various government agencies, including the FBI and the US Army as well as the NSA, viewed such moves with horror. They feared that not only would US citizens be able to keep both legal and illegal communications secret (seriously limiting the FBI's wiretapping capabilities, for example), but also that foreign governments, organizations, and individuals, including those who posed potential threats to the US and its allies, would be able to confound any investigations into their activities.

Levy does not focus only on the proponents of freely-available strong cryptography, but also pays attention to some of the figures who worked in the NSA and in other branches of government, paying attention to their motivations and actions. Nevertheless, it is clear that the sympathies of the author (whose previous work notably includes Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution) lie on one side rather than the other, and that the "crypto-anarchists" are his heroes this time.

However, Levy is slightly ingenuous in framing his story, as he initially does, as one of puny-but-determined citizens against an all-powerful state: "The former were nobodies: computer hackers, academics, and policy wonks. The latter were the most powerful people in the world: spies, and generals, and presidents. Guess who won" (2). This may make for good narrative, but it becomes apparent that the individuals and small groups of academics, entrepreneurs, and programmers were sooner or later joined by representatives of big business and by pragmatically-minded members of Congress and the Senate. Later in the story one pro-cryptography group, called "Americans for Computer Privacy," turns out to be made up of thirteen large corporations "including RSA, IBM, Novell, Sun, and Microsoft" (304). The direct involvement of Bill Gates in the story (he lectures recalcitrant politicians on the problems associated with continuing to deny strong crypto to the people) also tends to redirect our perception of where "the most powerful people in the world" sit in this supposed contest between outsiders and the establishment.

Levy's presentation of his account as the beneficial "saving" of privacy from the threat of governmental intrusion is problematic because it depends on adherence to certain understandings of the ideas involved. The battle between the rebels and the government may be over concepts such as democracy, freedom, and individual rights and responsibilities, but it is the way in which these concepts are perceived and represented that decides which side one supports. What is more important to the US and its democracy -- freedom for individuals from inside interference into their affairs, or the government's capacity to protect individuals, collectively, from potentially more severe outside interference?

Taking an example from Crypto helps illustrate how the arguments around such points are shaped. Various measures were taken by the government in attempts to stem the flow of cryptography into the public domain. At one stage, moves to curb the effects of strong cryptography involved the insertion of 'trapdoor' features into systems to allow official access under certain conditions -- in effect allowing the equivalent of electronic wiretapping. These moves, which included the notorious Clipper Chip, provided the occasion for some of the most heated debate over what was at stake in the restriction of, or lifting of restrictions on, strong crypto.

Representatives of the pro-cyber freedom organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), perceived the Clipper chip as a threat both to freedom and to essential tenets of "American-ness." John Perry Barlow, EFF founder (and Grateful Dead lyricist) felt that what the Clipper Chip represented was a plan that would "initiate a process that might end freedom in America" (248); fellow EFF spokesperson Jerry Berman said of the principle behind Clipper that "It's not America" (252).

Opposing these ideas about freedom and American-ness were strongly-felt concerns about what the effects of deregulating strong crypto might be. In this view, the Clipper Chip was a way of enabling the government to retain some information-gathering power: "The smoke had hardly cleared from the [1993] World Trade Center bombing. What if another, maybe a worse, terrorist disaster came, and it turned out that the government failed to prevent it because the perpetrators were able to communicate with unbreakable crypto? You want to give Saddam Hussein access to ciphers we can't break? Go ahead -- do nothing. The blood will be on your hands. This terrified the Clinton people" (244; emphasis in original). The onus of responsibility implicit in this argument lies upon protecting the USA, and democracy, from the forces of tyranny and terrorism, in which case the loss of some personal freedoms is a small price to pay.

Whitfield Diffie's comment, quoted in the second paragraph, emphasizes the importance of secrecy in enabling the discussion of issues important to democracy. However, other versions of democracy and the democratic process emphasize the importance of open communication rather than the need for secrecy on behalf of any party (Habermas's (1984) Ideal Speech Situation, for example, valorizes equal and unhindered participation by all interested parties in democratic communication). The differing attitudes towards the Clipper Chip echo the views of Rousseau and Foucault, among many others. It is impossible to present either side of the argument as being pro- or anti- democracy, for any such understanding of what is democratic depends on a prior understanding of what democracy consists in. Ultimately, this is what Levy's account represents: a clash between two ideals of how state and individuals should relate, how societal life should be organized, and how democracy should be enacted.

Bauman, Z (1987) Legislators and Interpreters (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press).

Calcutt, A (1999) White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions of Cyberculture (London: MacMillan Press).

Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Allen Lane).

Habermas, J (1984 [1981]) The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 1. (Boston: Beacon Press).

Lee, D and Newby, H (1983) The Problem of Sociology (London and New York: Routledge).

Iain Lang:
Iain Lang is near to completing a doctoral dissertation in sociology at the University of Sussex, UK. His doctoral work uses ideas from rhetoric, citation analysis, and social network analysis to examine the ways in which social scientists use concepts in their work in different ways.  <I.A.Lang@sussex.ac.uk>

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