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The State Threat to Computer Privacy

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The Clinton administration is proceeding apace with a plan to force each of us to give the government a spare key to our houses and offices. Well, that’s not literally what they want. They want a spare key to our filing cabinets.

That may be cryptic, but in time the reader will see the aptness of it all.

The government is afraid that you and I may be discussing illegal activities when we communicate with each other. Some of that communication is filed away. So the government wants to be able to get into those files without our knowledge or permission. It could get a warrant, enter our homes and offices, and search the files. But what if we use filing cabinets with such good locks that the government can’t get into them? That’s why Clinton and his men want the spare keys. They want to make it illegal to use a lock for which the government does not have a key.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? But the scenario is not quite accurate. To make it so, just put the word “electronic” in front of the references to files and filing cabinets. What the government wants access to is our computers, our e-mail, and all our electronic “papers.” Privacy shmivacy!

Right now, it is easy to lock the government out. There are powerful, easy-to-use programs that give the common computer user access to military-grade cryptographic software that encodes files so that only intended recipients can decipher them. Most often used worldwide is Pretty Good Privacy, the brainchild of Philip Zimmermann, who for his heroic efforts was hounded by the government for over two years until it finally dropped the case against him several months ago. (PGP is available from MIT’s site on the World Wide Web.) But although Zimmermann seems to be off the legal hook, the Clinton administration has not given up hope of collecting all those spare keys.

It tries to reassure the suspicious among us by stating that law enforcement would need a court order to get any particular key. That is reassuring. The police never enter homes without a warrant. They never wiretap telephones without authorization of the independent judiciary. Shame on us for being suspicious of the FBI, the ATF, the DEA, the IRS, and the rest of the alphabet gang that shoots too straight for comfort.

It says much that the government is so desperate to get control of encryption. Like an overbearing parent, governments do not like when their citizens are able to do too much out of sight and earshot. It’s not just that we might be having too much fun, though that’s part of it. It’s that we all might get too large a taste for freedom and conduct unregulated by the government. We might talk about taboo subjects. We might even–oh, horror!–engage in financial transactions the state knows nothing about. We might–who knows what free people might do?

The government says it needs to control encryption because criminals and people who threaten national security will seek refuge in it. That’s like saying we should be forced to use postcards for all our mail because criminals will seek refuge in envelopes.

Advocates of computer privacy point out that the people’s security would be better protected by freedom of encryption. The National Research Council, which opposes the Clinton plan, says that independent encryption would thwart economic espionage and make the banking industry less vulnerable to disruption and theft. On the other hand, a central repository for all the spare keys would be a juicy target for hackers and more serious malefactors.

Encryption may seem an esoteric matter. Many people may not care to encode their casual e-mail. But this is a big issue with many implications. The emerging cybersociety and cybermarket have the potential to enrich our lives in marvelous ways. A vast amount of information, products, and services could be at our fingertips–literally. They will be stifled, though, if our spare keys are hanging in some government office.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.