Book Review ~ How the Code Rebels Beat the Government-Saving Privacy in the Digital Age

Viking o 2001 o 356 pages o $25.95

Reviewed by Jim Bovard

Steven Levy’s Crypto describes how a small band of high-tech geeks and others defeated the federal government’s efforts to outlaw cryptography-the use of secret codes and ciphers to scramble information so that it’s worthless to anyone but the intended recipients.

The book begins in the 1960s with the efforts of people at MIT and elsewhere who were fascinated by computer security and cryptography. Breakthroughs by private researchers set off alarms at the National Security Agency (NSA), which unsuccessfully sought to get Congress to authorize the agency to suppress publication of private cryptography research. In the mid-to-late 1980s, battles erupted over U.S. export controls that thwarted the overseas sales of Lotus Notes and other commonly used software, because the NSA feared that their mild cryptographic features could thwart U.S. spying.

When William Clinton was elected president, many high-tech wizards thought that Valhalla had arrived: finally-a team of people who understood how computers were revolutionizing life and why the government shouldn’t throttle progress. However, the tech gurus greatly underestimated the statism and power lust of the Clintonites. Levy reports that within a few months of taking office, "The Clinton people had already mentally aligned themselves with the government insiders at the NSA, the FBI, the Justice Dept, and the CIA."

On April 16, 1993, the Clinton administration revealed that the NSA had secretly developed a new microchip known as the Clipper Chip. A White House press release announced "a new initiative that will bring the Federal Government together with industry in a voluntary program to improve the security and privacy of telephone communications while meeting the legitimate needs of law enforcement." This was practically the last time that the word "voluntary" was mentioned.

Clipper Chip advocates presumed that it should be a crime for anyone to use technology that frustrates curious government agents. The ACLU noted, "The Clipper Chip proposal would have required every encryption user (that is, every individual or business using a digital telephone system, fax machine, the Internet, etc.) to hand over their decryption keys to the government, giving it access to both stored data and real-time communications. This is the equivalent of the government requiring all homebuilders to embed microphones in the walls of homes and apartments."

Not surprisingly, the agency most hungry to spy on Americans was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI Director Louis Freeh told a Senate committee in March 1994 that Americans "want to have a cop on the digital information highway." Unfortunately, what Freeh demanded and Congress enacted was the equivalent of not just having a cop on the digital information highway, but also having a cop potentially listening to every phone call and reading every e-mail.

Levy offers insights into how easily most congressmen were persuaded to put a knife in the back of Americans’ privacy. He notes, "NSA briefings were notorious in Congress. They involved a dramatic presentation by the NSA on why our international eavesdropping abilities were so vital. . . . They initiated legislators into the society of Top Security, implicitly shifting their alliance from the citizenry to the intelligence agencies." Unfortunately, few congressmen were either knowledgeable or confident enough to challenge the claims made in secret hearings. However, the public uproar-from geeks, to talk show hosts, to civil liberties groups-had a huge impact.

Crypto is rich in personal and technical detail. However, the style is often verbose and tedious. The book is also frustrating because it implicitly portrays the defeats of federal power grabs in the 1990s as a final victory for freedom. The book’s subtitle, How the Code Rebels Beat the Government-Saving Privacy in the Digital Age-seems ironic in the wake of 9/11 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act-which greatly increases government surveillance.

For instance, the FBI is increasingly installing keystroke monitoring software on people’s computers. This software allows the government to record every keystroke anyone makes while using that computer. The feds will not need to ask your passwords because they can capture whatever you type into the computer. This will allow the feds to thwart anyone who attempts to keep prying eyes out of his work.

As long as politicians and bureaucrats lust for power, the battle for privacy must continue. Crypto is a reminder of how courage and ingenuity triumphed in the past and why the friends of freedom must be wary and ready in the future.

Jim Bovard is the author of Lost Rights (St. Martin’s, 1994) and Freedom in Chains (St. Martin’s, 1998).

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