Encryption Is Essential to Freedom
April 2, 1997
The Clinton Administration sent three of its spokesmen to Capitol Hill
last week to plead the case for "key escrow" before the House
Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property. They were testifying
against H.R. 695, a bill that states: "It shall be lawful for any
person . . . to use any encryption, regardless of the encryption
algorithm selected, encryption key length chosen, or implementation
technique or medium used."
It is a sad day to think that Americans
might need permission from Congress to have a private conversation!
Key escrow means depositing a key to your computer code with a third
party and allowing the government to have access to it. It is
tantamount to giving the government the keys to your house and, if that
ever happens, freedom in America is gone.
Sending messages on computer without encryption is like putting all
your thoughts on a postcard; anyone and everyone can read it. Privacy
in the computer age requires putting our communications in code
(encrypting them) so that only designated recipients can read them.
Advances in computer technology have been wonderful in so many ways,
but they are also constantly eroding our personal privacy. Massive
databases are now keeping track of our phone numbers, addresses,
income, credit records, purchases, and medical history.
The right of Americans to speak in private (whether in English, a
foreign language, or in code) is fundamental to our First Amendment
rights. The freedom to send and receive coded messages cannot be
limited without seriously eroding our civil liberties.
That right is endangered today by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh are giving
speeches advocating the regulation of cryptography. They openly and
brazenly assert the right of the Federal Government to read your
computer E-mail messages and listen in on your telephone conversations.
Freeh really doesn't like the whole idea that Americans can have
private conversations. Last July 25, he told the Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science and Transportation that encryption poses a "threat to
public safety." He wants to forbid the use of encryption products
unless they are "socially-responsible," i.e., have key escrow built
Freeh asserted that there is now an "emerging opinion throughout much
of the world" in favor of key escrow. Al Gore calls it a "consensus."
But there is no such consensus; nobody is pushing it except the Clinton
Are we worried that the Justice Department might abuse its power to
eavesdrop on our computer messages? You bet we are. The misbehavior
of the FBI in so many areas, and the coverups that followed, have been
shocking. Giving the FBI access to our computer messages would be a
long, dangerous step toward making America a totalitarian state.
The Clinton Administration spokesmen tried to tell the House committee
that they are not urging "mandatory" key escrow, they only want
"voluntary" key escrow. But this difference is not significant to the
individual computer user.
The Federal Government is notorious for using all sorts of coercive
methods, including intimidation, tax funding incentives, and export
controls to make something mandatory while loudly proclaiming it to be
"voluntary." The right of the individual to privacy would be
meaningless if the Clinton Administration browbeats the telephone and
software companies into "voluntarily" building key escrow into all
It is important to recognize that encryption is not only a right of
free speech, but also that encryption is a good thing, not a bad thing,
or a criminal thing. Strong encryption is one of the greatest
achievements of the information age.
Encryption will enable us to talk on the telephone with assurance that
no one is eavesdropping. It will enable us to exchange E-mail, make
purchases, and invest our money in privacy, because snoops cannot
decode data traffic even if they gain access to a network.
Telephone users are becoming increasingly annoyed with the fact that
nosy people can easily listen in on our wireless (cellular and cordless
phone) conversations. Even though improved digital technology, which
makes listening in more difficult, is becoming available, millions of
old-style, insecure wireless phones are expected to be sold this year.
It should be the policy of the United States to encourage wide
dissemination of strong encryption technology. It is unfortunate that
some pending bills in Congress impose criminal penalties for the use of
encryption in connection with a crime, thus giving the impression that
encryption is somehow suspect. We should punish criminals for actual
crimes, not for auxiliary activities that are entirely lawful and
We don't want to move toward a nation in which any state crime becomes
a federal felony merely because a computer, telephone, or other
electronic device is involved. Considering the present status of
judicial activism, Congress should be removing jurisdiction from the
federal courts, not adding to their jurisdiction.