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Village Voice sidebars

Here are the two short sidebars that accompany the Village Voice article on
Cypherpunks et al. Posted by and with the permission of the author.

The first contains some of the more practical information that Tim May was
wondering about, though it does not point anyone towards ftp sites, mailing
lists, or anything as concrete as that. I didn't know whether you all would
appreciate an influx of "left-biased" :-) crypto-naifs flooding in here as a
result of my posting the list address, so I refrained. Also didn't think
advertising locations for PGP was a good idea, given the legal hassles that
might result to people doing the distribution. But if any of you think I was
being overscrupulous, I encourage you to write the Voice with further
information and I will do my best to see the letter gets published.


Contrary to the conventional wisdom of an age gone cuckoo for ``smart''
technology, Luddism is neither dead nor beside the point -- it's just gotten
smarter. The Cypherpunks and other cryptography hackers are model
practitioners of a new, techno-savvy Luddism, implementing and popularizing
sophisticated gadgets that could short-circuit the awesome surveillance
capabilities built into cyberspace without harming its equally awesome power
to connect individuals. Long-term, these brave new tools will do more to
keep Big Brother out of your business than any legislation can, so you owe
yourself at least a cursory understanding of how they work. The following
primer should jump-start you. Read it and get smart.

PUBLIC-KEY CRYPTOGRAPHY: Most encryption schemes require sender and receiver
to agree on a secret encoding number, or key, before communication. This
increases vulnerability, since that first message establishing the key can't
itself be encrypted. Public-key systems, invented in 1975 by Ur-cypherpunk
Whitfield Diffie along with Martin Hellman, have no such requirement, making
them ideal for the highly snoopable channels of computer networks. In
public-key crypto, everybody creates two keys, one published for all the
world to read, and one kept absolutely secret. Whatever's encrypted with the
first can only be unlocked with the second. Thus, if you want to send
someone a secret message there's no need to make prior contact -- you just
look up that person's public key and use it to encrypt the text. Current
usage: The free public-key encryption program PGP is one of the most
popularly deployed crypto tools in the on-line world, with PGP public keys
rapidly becoming the electronic superhighway's equivalent of vanity plates.

ANONYMOUS REMAILERS: These systems aim to conceal not the contents of a
message but its source. A remailer is a network-connected computer that
takes in e-mail, then sends it on to a destination specified in attached,
encrypted instructions, thus placing a veil between sender and receiver. If
the message is sent through a chain of even a few remailers, the veil
quickly becomes rock solid, guaranteeing the sender's anonymity. Current
usage: The Cypherpunks maintain a working anonymous remailer chain, but the
most active are the one-hop systems used by participants in public on-line
discussions of bondage, foot worship, and assorted other predilections they
might not want their computer-literate boss/parents/neighbors to know

DIGITAL SIGNATURES: In the fluid world of digital info, how do you verify
that a message is really from whom it claims it's from? Turn public-key
cryptography inside out, that's how. Have the sender encrypt the message
with her private key, then let the receiver try to decrypt it with the
sender's public key. If the decryption comes out clear, then the sender's
identity is confirmed -- without revealing her private key or even, if the
public key is attached to a pseudonymous but otherwise trustworthy on-line
persona, her physical identity. This is more or less how digital signatures
work. Current usage: mainly in corporate and bureaucratic settings, though
all good Cypherpunks try to make a habit of e-signing their e-mail.

ELECTRONIC CASH: Imagine the convenience of credit cards combined with the
anonymity of cash. Imagine a microchip-equipped debit card that instantly
deducts transactions from the user's bank account, yet does so without
revealing the payer's identity to the payee or linking payer and payee in
the bank's records. Imagine these mechanisms set loose in the world's
computer nets, converting great chunks of money supply into fast, loose,
digital e-cash. The wizardry of public-key crypto can make all this happen
and probably will. Current usage: experimental, mostly. Denmark, however, is
gearing up to implement an encrypted smart-card system, based on the ideas
of crypto-hacker David Chaum, who holds patents on most e-money



The high weirdness of the military's code-busting censorship moves peaked in
World War II, but didn't end there. It was during the Gulf War, in fact,
that military censors made one of the strangest additions to their already
strange list of banned communications: the Navajo language. A small number
of Navajos, it seems, wanted to send broadcast greetings in their native
tongue to loved ones stationed overseas, but Armed Forces Radio refused to
pass the messages along. Once again, the mere possibility of enemy signals
lurking in the noise was too much for the censors to bear. ``We have a
responsibility to control what's on the radio,'' said the lieutenant colonel
in charge, ``and if I don't know what it says then I can't control it.'' 

    In the ripest of ironies, however, it turns out that the only nation
ever known to have used Navajo as a cover for secret communications was the
United States itself. Throughout World War II's Pacific campaign, the Marine
Corps made heavy and effective use of its Navajo codetalker units--teams of
Navajo radiomen who spoke a slangy, cryptic patois difficult even for
uninitiated Navajos to grasp, and ultimately impossible for the Japanese to
decode. Today the codetalkers remain legendary figures on the rez and beyond
-- legendary enough indeed that New Mexico congressman Bill Richardson,
wielding the memory of their exploits, finally shamed Armed Forces Radio
into lifting its ban and letting Navajo greetings reach the Gulf.

    It's a familiar story. Prized and feared for its impenetrable otherness,
Navajo has met the same uneasy fate reserved for all true difference in a
country that both prides itself on cultural diversity and insistently
suppresses it. But in its blurring of the lines between language and secret
code, Navajo's passage through the belly of the military beast hints at one
way out of America's terminal cultural ambivalence. As arch-Cypherpunk John
Gilmore has argued, committing to universally accessible encryption is one
way for our society to finally take the ideal of diversity seriously --
backing it up ``with physics and mathematics, not with laws,'' and certainly
not with the lip service it's traditionally honored with. Cryptography could
guarantee us each a language of our own, which no censor, military or
otherwise, could hope to silence. 

Julian Dibbell                                       [email protected]