Privacy on the Line. The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption
by Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau. MIT Press 1998. 342 pages.
Bibliography, index and endnotes. $25.00 ISBN 0-262-04167-7.
Book Review by Robert Bruen
The issue of encryption use by private citizens was pushed into
the public eye after Phil Zimmerman was placed under threat of
indictment resulting from the release of Pretty Good Privacy(PGP).
The indictment threat was withdrawn and the public stopped paying
much attention to it. It was replaced by the threat of the Computer
Decency Act (CDA) as the focus of attention. Now that threat has been
pushed back, so the focus seems to be somewhat diffused. The underlying
problem has not received the attention it deserves. These two events
(and a few others) are merely instances of the most serious threat
to the American way of life since the Civil War. The threat is to
our right to privacy in our communications with one another. The right
to privacy is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, but it
falls within the penumbra (shadow) of the rights that are explicit.
There has been a constant and continuing effort by various agencies
of the Federal Government, law enforcement and state governments to
chip away at this right. These efforts have been resisted by a number
of groups through legal challenges and media publicity. The battle is
raging, but it does not appear that most of the citizens in America
realize the extent of the consequences of this war. It is the difference
between a police state such as George Orwell envisioned in his novel 1984
(perhaps as demonstrated in East Germany and the former Soviet Union
without quite the high tech capability) and a free society as envisioned
by the framers of our Constitution.
The very future of our society is at stake, but in order to understand
just how serious the threat is, one must understand technical ideas
such as encryption, computing and networks. There are many good books
available on these topics, but they are not truly accessible to the
average citizen because the technical information is difficult and there
is not a connection to their everyday lives. Moreover the issues are
clouded by struggles over pornography and free speech.
The vacuum has been filled by Mr. Diffie and Professor Landau. He is
known as the inventor of public-key cryptography and she was primary
author of the 1994 Association of Computing Machinery report, "Codes,
Keys, and Conflicts: Issues in US Crypto Policy.'" There is no question
on their qualifications to speak on this issue.
This book is well researched with an extensive bibliography that includes
not only the expected books and articles, but also government reports, FBI
memos and Congressional testimony. This is straight-forward presentation
of just how much of a problem we all have. FBI director Louis Freeh will
not like this book, nor will the NSA, but anyone who is concerned about
their privacy and freedom will be grateful for the clear detailing of the
threat. This loss of our ability to have encrypted communication will be
an unrecoverable one. It would be the same as if the South had won the
Civil War and slavery was legal today. The major difference would be that
all of our citizens will be enslaved instead of just a particular group.
There is no other issue today that will have as much of an impact on our
future freedom as this one.
Using FBI memos, documents and testimony, the authors bring out the
fact that the FBI is willing to say just about anything to get a law
passed that makes the use of encryption by private citizens illegal.
The history of the NSA's dealings with other government agencies shows
how they have tried to control the debate and the rules concerning
encryption. These agencies have determined that encryption is of
major importance and I believe they are correct. Diffie and Landau
make this case in such a masterful manner, that you can not read the
book and not walk away with this conclusion. I think this is one of
the most important books published on privacy because it pulls together
all the relevant information in one very readable place.
The issues of cryptography, privacy, law enforcement, national security
and wiretapping are all brought together in an orderly, coherent work,
that is well written enough to be an enjoyable read that shows no signs
over-dramatization. But when you are done, the overall effect is powerful.
As an example, the value of wiretapping is often used a justification
to control the use of encryption. The authors use government reports
to demonstrate that the actual value is quite low, limited to a
few well publicized cases. In many cases the real tool was the use
of bugs, not wiretaps, which of course has little to do with encryption.
Wiretaps, new technology and the legal approach to encryption use control
are just the building blocks for the surveillance society of tomorrow.
One of the most important features of the book is the step by step
history of the attempts to pass laws by the NSA and the FBI. Quotes
are given by people like National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft
in 1991 where he refers to an attempt "...to seek a legislative fix
to the digital telephony problem" and " Success with digital
telephony will lock in one major objective; we will have established
a beachhead we can exploit for the encryption fix..." This is
a clear indication that there is plan to eliminate our rights to
I suggest that this book should be considered urgent reading and should
be widely circulated. It could be the one that wakes everybody up.