At several recent junctures, the U.S. government has publicly sought to expand its power and control over the electronic privacy of its citizens. At each point, the government was roundly foiled by the public and the majority of the political class, which rebuked it. But that has evidently never stopped the government from imposing its will surreptitiously. As the reporting of the New York Times, ProPublica, and the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s programs exposed by Edward Snowden showed once again yesterday, when the government really wants something, it can be temporarily denied but rarely foiled.
In the early 1990s, computer scientist and activist Phil Zimmerman created an encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short, to block the government and other snoopers from reading the emails and files of users. To retard PGP, the government targeted Zimmerman with a criminal investigation for “munitions export without licenses” after the program appeared overseas, explaining that the program’s encryption exceeded what U.S. export regulations allowed.
Zimmerman and his allies eventually won the PGP showdown, as did privacy advocates in the mid-1990s, defeating the government’s proposal for the “Clipper chip,” which would allow easy surveillance of telephone and computer systems, and again after 9/11, when Congress cut funding for the Defense Department office in charge of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a massive surveillance database containing oceans of vital information about everybody in the United States.
But the journalistic record proves we can’t trust government’s white flag of surrender. In the case of TIA, the government abandoned the program’s name but preserved the operation, as Shane Harris and others reported seven years ago, giving it new code names and concealing it in places like the NSA. The documents Snowden stole from the NSA show the government capturing and analyzing much of what TIA sought in the first place.
Yesterday’s Times-ProPublica-Guardian pieces revealed the government accomplishing its PGP and Clipper chip goals by similar subterfuge. The NSA has “circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems,” reported the joint ProPublica and Times article. The agency spends hundreds of millions a year in its work “with technology companies to ‘covertly influence’ their product designs” to make end-user communications more visible to its eyes, reported the Guardian. At Microsoft, the NSA coerced its way into pre-encryption access to the company’s email service, its Skype phone system, and SkyDrive, its cloud storage service.