Codes to the Kingdom: Encryption Rights and a Chat with Dave Farber :

Riverside Press Enterprise, Sunday 19 October 1997

John de Pillis
Professor of Mathematics, University of California, Riverside

Evolving computer technology has us facing a
fundamental Constitutional question: Should
government have the right to eavesdrop on our
private data and conversations?

Things are almost never what they seem to be." This statement is true so often that it genuinely earns the title, "clich." For example, Dave Farber is not what he seems to be.

Dave is a friend I was seeing off at LAX during a brief layover he had from Philadelphia to Tokyo. He had been invited to deliver the keynote address at a conference dealing with technology and the Internet. Spy (almost) vs Spy

The bespectacled Dave Farber is the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania. He is called by some, "the grandfather of computer networking."

It's odd --- you never know how old friends will turn out. The chum from Stevens Institute of Technology whom I would call "Dave-the-Knave," turned out to be a really important force in a high tech world that was yet to be.

While an undergraduate in the mid 1950's, Dave worked during the summer with Wally Dietrich, in Washington, D.C. on the world's very first transistor analog computer. Then, at Bell Labs, from 1956-1966, he helped design the world's first computer-operated telephone switching system. He also developed "SNOBOL," a text-handling language which proved to be a forerunner of many of today's computer based languages.

A decision to leave Bell Labs in favor of returning to MIT was deflected when Richard Hamming, the famous coding theorist, encouraged Dave to stay at Bell Labs where "the computing action is." This resulted in Dave's work in the development of a practical, high-speed computer network. The dye was cast --- Dave had become a major player in the emerging field of computer networking.

Dave continued his fundamental work at UC Irvine, developing the Distributed Computing System (DCS) which, with financial support from the National Science Foundation, evolved into a network that connected faculty from universities all over the country. By 1976, CSNet was successfully connecting university researchers all over the country.

Dave's work did not escape the notice of the Japanese. They invited him, with some of his colleagues to Japan to establish a network there.

The story continues. At the University of Pennsylvania, Dave teamed with Bob Kahn in the development of the ARPAnet, which evolved to become the Internet.

On this day, I am having a discussion at LAX with this seemingly ordinary person who is waiting for a plane to Japan. At first glance, you see a mild man, wholly absorbed in the nerdy, hi-tech discipline of computer science. But peel away the layers of first impression and you find an inner cauldron of passions, principles, and concern for others. Dave is mindful of his responsibilities as a citizen/scientist in a democracy.

Dave acts on his convictions. That is why Wired Magazine calls him the "Paul Revere of the Digital Revolution." That is why he accepted an invitation from Mitch Kaper, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, to be on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group funded by foundations and industry. The EFF mission is "to make the electronic frontier accessible and useful to all, not just a technical elite that is familiar with computers."

Computers? Computers are not what they appear to be. The very word "computer" is misleading since it implies that only calculating is going on. That's like saying a newspaper is just a set of pages that people fold and unfold each day. So what are computers --- really?

They are at once like newspapers, vehicles for public information: editorials, governmental bills, and announcements of civic events. But computers, are, at the same time, unlike newspapers when they are used to carry very private information: credit card numbers, bank statements, and personal e-mail communication.

Computers are more than the calculators they seem to be. Beneath the outer layer of calculation, there are powerful conduits of information --- information that has been cleverly represented as numbers.

Numbers are information? If so, then by design, numbers are not what they seem to be. Look carefully and you may discern a message. -----------------

Numbers and messages: The process of representing messages as numbers is called "encoding" or "encryption." Turning numbers back into human messages is called "decoding" or "decryption."

The effectiveness of encryption is based on the premise that it is easy to multiply numbers and difficult to go the other way --- that is, to factor them.

For example, it is not so hard to calculate the product of the two numbers 1,801 and 947 to get 1,801 x 947 = 1,7055,547. But it would not be so easy to go the other way --- start with the number 1,7055,547 and break it down as the product of the two smaller numbers, 1,801 and 947.

Here comes RSA: In 1977, a powerful encryption method was developed called the RSA algorithm, named after the three mathematicians, Ron Rivet, Leonard Adleman and Adi Shamir. Soon after, Phil Zimmerman, made the RSA encryption process available in a freely distributed software program called PGP, for Pretty Good Privacy.

But the mathematics of PGP is not mathematics. What PGP seems to be to the U.S. Government, is a munition. Therefore, says the Department of Justice, PGP software can not be exported without violating the federal International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). For years, Phil Zimmerman was under investigation for exporting the PGP "munition" via the Internet in violation of ITAR. Charges were dropped just last year so Zimmerman's ordeal is over. For now. It seems.

What is the present status of encryption? House bill HR 695, called Security and Freedom through Encryption (SAFE), has been under debate for some time. Originally designed to loosen restrictions on citizen use of secure encryption, passage of HR 695 has been delayed by various attempts to allow the Government access to every individual's decoding "keys." (To see what a "key" is, go to the example at the end of the article.)

The very existence of this spirited debate confirms that encryption and decryption are not what they first seem to be. We are not just talking about a scheme to scramble and unscramble words. Beneath the layers, you become snarled and intertwined with fundamental issues of Constitutional freedom of speech, trust in government, and rights of privacy.

What a debate it is. Should the Government, with or without warrant, have the right to eavesdrop on private conversations and to view your private data?

And what about terrorists? Is there a likelihood or a history of cases in which lawbreakers use encryption to frustrate law enforcement?

Someone has actually looked into this. (c.f. Back in February of 1994, Dorothy Denning, Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, commented on the Clipper chip, a device that would scramble electronic communications through phone lines. Law enforcement agencies, with court warrants, could read the Clipper codes and eavesdrop on illegal activities. "Clipper is a good idea," Professor Denning said, "it needs support from people who recognize the need for both privacy and effective law enforcement."

But in July of 1997, in a report with William Baugh, Jr. published by the National Strategy Information Center in Washington, D.C., Professor Denning revised her views. She reported that a comprehensive survey of law enforcement officials found that they had been able to nab suspected criminals even when they used encryption to hide evidence.

The issue is not as simple as it may seem.

After all this study, Professor Denning's conclusion is this: "If anything, I am in a greater state of questioning about what we should do."

Where does that leave the rest of us? Before any of us can decide on how to fashion the three-legged stool of technology, privacy and Government, we must address the following: How far do you trust your Government to hold a key to your private communication? Will criminals sidestep Chipper technology anyway and just develop their own coding methods that render Government-held keys useless? And does the present predict the future? That is, although encryption hasn't been a major obstacle to law enforcement so far, will this happy trend continue?

At this point in our discussion, we realized it was getting late. (It didn't just seem late, either.) We broke off our conversation and Dave boarded his flight.

As I got into my car at LAX's Parking Lot C, I thought about how often we struggle to get past the layers --- to go beyond first impressions in order to understand some underlying structure. Something like a cabbage. Pulling out onto the freeway, I thought to myself, life is one doozy of a cabbage.

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updated and revised 4 March 1998

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