OSD 87: You are holding a weapon of war right now
The deadly math that comes free with every computer.
We came across this video, part two in a four-part series about the cypherpunk movement. This episode is about the creation of public-key cryptography (stick with us for a minute, we promise this winds back around to guns):
Encryption has never been an exclusively military technology, but until the 1970s, it had always been primarily military. That’s where and why the advances in encryption happened, and the never-ending search for a military advantage is what pushed encryption forward, from Ancient Greece through the Vietnam War.
In other words: encryption had always been first and foremost a weapon of war. In World War 2, encryption research happened at the most secretive levels of each side’s war effort, and people lived and died by encryption as surely as they did by guns and bombs. It was so important that sharing encryption algorithms with the enemy was punishable as espionage — i.e. punishable by death.
There’s a big difference between those wartime encryption algos and the ones you’re using right now to read this post: your encryption algos are far more powerful. Before the 1970s, encryption wasn’t widely available to the public, and the few available forms were trivially breakable by any powerful actor, and certainly by any interested government. But by the ‘70s, theoretical advances in computer science and practical advances in microprocessor manufacturing led to a world-historical first: publicly available encryption that nobody, no matter how powerful or how well-resourced, could break. (The specific algorithmic advance is called public-key cryptography.)
That’s powerful. And that wasn’t lost on the entities whose monopoly on power it undermined. There’s a set of regulations in the US called International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that defines the rules for exporting military weapons — to whom, by whom, with which approvals, and so on.
Until the mid-‘90s, encryption algorithms were on the ITAR list. Under the same rules that make it illegal for you to export missiles and landmines, it was illegal for you to export — by simply, say, posting a description of the math on the internet — public-key encryption algorithms. As web browsers started building in those algos (to do things like protect your credit card info when you shop online), the regulations became unenforceable. So they ultimately fell by the wayside — but not for lack of trying from the government’s end. To this day, it remains the government’s position that unbreakable encryption should be illegal — i.e. that this math is a weapon of war, that only the government can be trusted with it, and that if push comes to shove, you should be imprisoned for having it. (As is tradition, anti-terrorism is the sharp end of the wedge.)
For people interested in gun rights, by now this should sound familiar. The “weapons of war” talking point is well-worn, and it uses the same logic for dangerous guns as it does for dangerous math. But the mistake that the gun rights world has made is in denying that guns are powerful. The whole point is that guns are powerful. The question isn’t whether that’s true; the question is whether that’s bad. We, of course, believe that it’s good, for the same reasons that a free internet is good — technology empowers constructive actors more than it empowers destructive actors. A philosophical and statistical deep-dive bears that out. So this makes encryption useful as a test. If someone understands why jailing people over encryption is bad but doesn’t understand it for guns, you have an opportunity. Their philosophy is in the right place, they’re just applying it selectively. Help them apply it everywhere.
Make it a great week, gang.
This week’s links
I feel like a lot of people, when they look at guns, look at it from a victim’s mentality. They look at it as “what can a gun do to me?” versus “what can a gun do for me”.
Mike must make more 40 mike-mike movies.
Picking right up from part 1 last week.
A short thread on the inhumane bedrock that gun laws are built on.
OSD cofounder Jon Stokes with a little analysis at the link above. Interestingly, while the Washington Post’s news section tends to make all the familiar errors on gun stuff, they’ve run some impressively open-minded opinion pieces. E.g. the one above, and 2017’s “I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.” by statistician Leah Libresco.
In the proximate sense, this is a good thing. But the underlying problem — that it’s possible to felonize people for owning wrong-shaped plastic — remains open.
The highlight here isn’t so much the mistakes he makes. Instead, it’s his earnestness. He genuinely believes in the tradeoffs he’s suggesting. And he doesn’t see the flaws, or the harm those flaws cause. You could interpret that as a problem: “Ugh, people are so ignorant on this stuff.” Or you could interpret it is an opportunity: “People’s hearts are in the right place, but they’re missing so much information here. Think of how much progress we’ll make by getting the truth to them.”
Prefer the latter approach.
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