Reading Our Mail
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Only in a nation already enormously out of touch with its founding principle -- that individual citizens and businesses have the right to do just about any peaceful thing, while it's the powers of government that are sharply restricted -- could Congress find itself debating whether to "allow" American computer firms to maintain their lead in the multi-million-dollar overseas market for software encryption.
In plainer language, outfits like Netscape Communications and Tandem Computers want "permission" to sell overseas programs like Pretty Good Privacy -- to which savvy American netsters now have free access -- programs which allow private e-mail messages and files to be encoded so government snoops can't read them.
The Clinton administration proposes that such exports be allowed only if a decoding "key" is entrusted to a third party -- such as a bank or insurance company -- which would then be subject to a court order or subpoena should law enforcement personnel wish to break the code and secretly read this electronic "mail."
FBI Director Louis Freeh testified in favor of such restrictions July 25, arguing that "Uncontrolled export of U.S. computer codes may help international criminals and terrorists hide their activities from law enforcement."
Well, yes, they probably do. Ramzi Yousef, on trial in New York on charges of plotting to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners, used a laptop computer containing files the FBI still hasn't been able to decode.
But note the past tense. Terrorists have already got this stuff. Anything in the possession of an American teenager can be (likely has been) uploaded onto the Internet, and then downloaded without anyone being the wiser in Baghdad, Tripoli, or Tangiers.
The real goal here is to control the ability of American citizens to communicate with one another without government snoops reading over their shoulders. When Director Freeh warns that "Encryption products used unchecked by criminals and terrorists for their illegal activities pose an extremely serious threat," it's worth remembering that federal agencies have, in recent years, used the terms "criminal" and "terrorist" to describe peaceful worshippers and their children at the Branch Davidian Church in Waco, MOVE activists in Philadelphia, an unarmed Idaho mother with a nursing baby in her arms, and any number of perhaps misguided but far-from-violent tax protesters, home schoolers, barter exchange operators, and practitioners of alternative medicine, to name just a few.
Once the possessor of such stuff can be arrested and jailed for years on charges of "exporting a munition" for the mere act of posting the mathematical formula on the Internet, does it make sense to pretend Americans will still be free to use such encryption domestically?
Those who favor an authoritarian, hierarchical society have grown accustomed to the fact that the political opinions available to most American government-school graduates have long been "filtered" through the news desks of a few television networks and major wire services. The unregulated, spontaneous nature of Internet communications frightens such souls with dark nightmares of anarchy, the same way King George hated the colonial "Committees of Correspondence."
As Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune pointed out in his nationally syndicated column June 19, "We can be grateful that ink and paper didn't make their first appearance the day before yesterday. Otherwise, Congress and the president would be scrambling frantically to make sure that these communication tools would not be used for purposes unapproved by the government."
If the idea of a government service delivering letters between private citizens were being introduced today, wouldn't Director Freeh similarly argue against the "extremely serious threat" that criminals and terrorists might use this new "mail" system to keep their secrets, should the government allow the use of glue-flapped "envelopes"?
But wait, you say: The secret "keys" would only be available upon issuance of a "court order."
And this guarantee would be enforced, I presume, by the same courts that today regularly excuse the short-circuiting of any and all such existing safeguards so long as the federals assert a "compelling government interest" in hunting drug dealers, nabbing "money-launderers," or whatever dastardly new crime of the week they care to allege?
It's understandable that repressive regimes like China are pulling out every stop to register and track private users of the Internet. When legislators show similar instincts in what was once the "Land of the Free," it's their own premises which they ... and we ... should re-examine.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.
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