Back in the early 1990s, programmer Phil Zimmerman released his “Pretty Good Protection” (PGP) encryption code first in book form and then on the Internet. According to U.S. News and World Report, that move was met with Justice Department-led grand jury investigation “for possible violation of federal arms-export laws” Why? Because encryption was viewed by the government as a weapon and once it was on the Internet, the magazine noted it meant Zimmerman’s “‘cryptography for the masses’ has slipped out of America.”
At the time, a U.S. intelligence official justified the harassment of Zimmerman by bluntly stated that the government was concerned not about Americans’ privacy, but about the fact that PGP would allow more people to guarantee that privacy.
“The ability of just about everybody to encrypt their messages is rapidly outrunning our ability to decode them,” the official told the magazine, lamenting that “it’s a lot harder to eavesdrop on a worldwide web than it is to tap a cable.”
For his part, Zimmerman explained his decision to publish PGP as a response to the threat of congressional efforts to effectively outlaw secure encryption – efforts led by none other than now-Vice President Joe Biden.
That’s right, back in 1991, Biden inserted language into an omnibus crime bill that “providers of electronic communications services and manufacturers of electronic communications service equipment shall ensure that communications systems permit the government to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data, and other communications.” Zimmerman says that if the language “had become real law, it would have forced manufacturers of secure communications equipment to insert special trap doors in their products, so that the government can read anyone’s encrypted messages.”
Though the three-year grand jury investigation ended up with no charges against Zimmerman, and though Biden’s language was removed from the final bill, it was the beginning of an ongoing campaign by government officials to try to ban, restrict or otherwise undermine truly secure, privacy-protecting encryption.
That campaign has now culminated in the Obama administration’s heavy-handed push for Internet-wide skeleton keys. It is a classic — if abhorrent — political workaround. Unable to convince rank-and-file members of Congress to openly vote against privacy and pass legislation outlawing secure encryption, anti-privacy/pro-surveillance ideologues have resorted to circumventing the democratic process by convincing the executive branch to try to simply bully tech companies into submission.
Though unstated, the government’s presumption in its anti-encryption crusade is that Americans should have no right to access technology that cannot be infiltrated by law enforcement agencies.
~ from Is Online Privacy a Right? by David Sirota ~
I've shared a longer snippet than usual just to provide you with a better picture of what is going on here. Not only does the federal government want the capability to listen in to and read all of our communications, but they want to make it illegal for any of us to try to protect our own privacy!
As Sirota also reports, the Obama administration is working to compel all communications companies to turn over to them each company's encryption keys. What this would mean, for example, is that if you use Google or Microsoft tools to encrypt your online communications, the NSA easily could decode it. So, these big corporations will continue to run ads bragging about their privacy features, while, in actuality, such privacy features already are being subverted by government spooks.
It would be like me inviting you into my home to allow you to use the restroom. I would tell you that you can be assured of complete privacy because I have covered up the windows and made the walls five feet thick. But unbeknownst to you, while you are in there doing your business, there is a concealed camera being utilized by "intelligence analysts" who can watch your every move and listen to any sounds you might make.
If you somehow figured out there was a hidden camera and listening device, wouldn't you be outraged? Would you accept my explanation that a) I couldn't tell you about the hidden camera and microphone because the government has sworn me to secrecy and b) the reason these things are there is for your safety! We wouldn't want you accidentally to drown if you fell face first into the toilet.