What Were the CryptoWars ?

Cyber Politics, Privacy, Security, Security & Privacy

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In a previous article, I mentioned the cryptowars against the US government in the 1990s. Some people let me know that it needed more explanation. Ask and thou shalt receive! Here is a brief history of the 1990s cryptowars and cryptography in general.

Crypto in this case refers to cryptography (not crypto-currencies like BitCoin). Cryptography is a collection of clever ways for you protect information from prying eyes. It works by transforming the information into unreadable gobbledegook (this process is called encryption). If the cryptography is successful, only you and the people you want can transform the gobbledegook back to plain English (this process is called decryption).

People have been using cryptography for at least 2500 years. While we normally think of generals and diplomats using cryptography to keep battle and state plans secret, it was in fact used by ordinary people from the start. Mesopotamian merchants used crypto to protect their top secret sauces, lovers in ancient India used crypto to protect their messages, and mystics in ancient Egypt used crypto to keep more personal secrets.

However, until the 1970s, cryptography was not very sophisticated. Even the technically and logistically impressive Enigma machines, used by the Nazis in their repugnant quest for Slavic slaves and Jewish genocide, were just an extreme version of one of the simplest possible encryptions: a substitution cipher. In most cases simple cryptography worked fine, because most messages were time sensitive. Even if you managed to intercept a message, it took time to work out exactly how the message was encrypted and to do the work needed to break that cryptography. By the time you finished, it was too late to use the information.

World War II changed the face of cryptography for multiple reasons – the first was the widespread use of radio, which meant mass interception of messages became almost guaranteed instead of a matter of chance and good police work. The second reason was computers. Initially computers meant women sitting in rows doing mind-numbing mathematical calculations. Then later came the start of computers as we know them today, which together made decryption orders of magnitude faster. The third reason was concentrated power and money being applied to surveillance across the major powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia) leading to the professionalization and huge expansion of all the relatively new spy agencies that we know and fear today.

The result of this huge influx of money and people to the state surveillance systems in the world’s richest countries (i.e. especially the dying British Empire, and then later America’s growing unofficial empire) was a new world where those governments expected to be able to intercept and read everything. For the first time in history, the biggest governments had the technology and the resources to listen to more or less any conversation and break almost any code.

In the 1970s, a new technology came on the scene to challenge this historical anomaly: public key cryptography, invented in secret by British spies at GCHQ and later in public by a growing body of work from American university researchers Merkle, Diffie, Hellman, Rivest, Sharmir, and Adleman. All cryptography before this invention relied on algorithm secrecy in some aspect – in other words the cryptography worked by having a magical secret method only known to you and your friends. If the baddies managed to capture, guess, or work out your method, decrypting your messages would become much easier.

This is what is known as “security by obscurity” and it was a serious problem from the 1940s on. To solve this, surveillance agencies worldwide printed thousands and thousands of sheets of paper with random numbers (one-time pads) to be shipped via diplomatic courier to embassies and spies around the world. Public key cryptography changed this: the invention meant that you could share a public key with the whole world, and share the exact details of how the encryption works, but still protect your secrets. Suddenly, you only had to guard your secret key, without ever needing to share it. Suddenly it didn’t matter if someone stole your Enigma machine to see exactly how it works and to copy it. None of that would help your adversary.

And because this was all normal mathematical research, it appeared in technical journals, could be printed out and go around the world to be used by anyone. Thus the US and UK governments’ surveillance monopoly was in unexpected danger. So what did they do? They tried to hide the research, and they treated these mathematics research papers as “munitions”. It became illegal to export these “weapons of war” outside the USA without a specific export license from the American government, just like for tanks or military aircraft.

This absurd situation persisted into the early 1990s when two new Internet-age inventions made their continued monopoly on strong cryptography untenable. Almost simultaneously, Zimmermann created a program (PGP) to make public key cryptography easy for normal people to use to protect their email and files, and Netscape created the first SSL protocols for protecting your connection to websites. In both cases, the US government tried to continue to censor and stop these efforts. Zimmermann was under constant legal threat, and Netscape was forced to make an “export-grade” SSL with dramatically weakened security. It was still illegal to download, use, or even see, these programs outside the USA.

But by then the tide had turned. People started setting up mirror websites for the software outside the USA. People started putting copies of the algorithm on their websites as a protest. Or wearing t-shirts with the working code (5 lines of Perl is all that’s needed). Or printing the algorithm on posters to put up around their universities and towns. In the great tradition of civil disobedience against injustice, geeks around the world were daring the governments to stop them, to arrest them. Both the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) organizations were created as part of this fight for our basic (digital) civil rights.

In the end, the US government backed down. By the end of the 1990s, the absurd munitions laws still existed but were relaxed sufficiently to allow ordinary people to have basic cryptographic protection online. Now they could be protected when shopping at Amazon without worrying that their credit card and other information would be stolen in transit. Now they could be protected by putting their emails in an opaque envelope instead of sending all their private messages via postcard for anyone to read.

However that wasn’t the end of the story. Like in so many cases “justice too long delayed is justice denied”. The internet is becoming systematically protected by encryption in the last two years thanks to the amazing work of LetsEncrypt. However, we have spent almost 20 years sending most of our browsing and search requests via postcard, and that “export-grade” SSL the American government forced on Netscape in the 1990s is directly responsible for the existence of the DROWN attack putting many systems at risk even today.

Meanwhile, thanks to the legal threats, email encryption never took off. We had to wait until the last few years for the idea of protecting everybody’s communications with cryptography to become mainstream with instant messaging applications like Signal. Even with this, the US and UK governments continue to lead the fight to stop or break this basic protection for ordinary citizens, despite the exasperated mockery from everyone who understands how cryptography works.

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