Punks and privacy


A few years ago, Boulder software engineer and peace activist Philip Zimmermann wrote a computer program called Pretty Good Privacy, designed to let ordinary people keep their electronic mail private. Calling it “a politically motivated product,” he allowed PGP to be posted for free on the Internet.

Though there are hundreds of encryption programs, PGP is so good that it’s used around the world and no one–not even the federal government–has been able to break it. Therein lies the rub. Worried about national security, the feds are discouraging privacy software that they can’t crack. Last spring, the Clinton administration pressured companies to use the “Clipper chip,” an encrypting microchip with passwords known to the government. This has Zimmermann and other cypherpunks, a loose-knit group of programmers dedicated to preserving electronic civil liberties, up in arms. “A lot of leftist activists think secrecy is something for Ollie North, that it’s not for people engaged in the righteous struggle,” he says. “But this is not a matter of secrecy. It’s a matter of privacy.”

Zimmermann, who was once arrested with Carl Sagan and Daniel Ellsberg at a Nevada nuclear test site, now faces a new threat. Last fall U.S. Customs began an investigation to see if he had broken laws against the unlicensed export of munitions (which is how encryption is classified). Zimmermann as terrorist? Hardly; in October he appeared before a congressional subcommittee considering cryptography export regulations, and testified that in the post-Cold War era, such controls don’t serve a national security interest, but merely leave people open to invasions of privacy.

“Some Americans don’t understand why I should be this concerned about the power of government,” he told the subcommittee. “But talking to people in Eastern Europe, you don’t have to explain it to them. They already get it–and they don’t understand why we don’t.”