Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a short essay on “gun culture and computer culture”. Political arguments based on crude analogies are as common as flies, and usual about as powerful, and at my advanced age it is rare for me to encounter one that even seems new, much less forces me to reconsider a seriously held political conviction.

Gun control has never been a major interest of mine. Like most of my fellow rootless cosmopolites, guns are mainly an object of loathing for me, and I don’t see why there should be so many of them around.

When people say they need guns for self-protection, I incline to the statistics on how much more likely people with guns are to be killed.  And when they say the 2nd amendment is a bulwark against tyranny I think, wait a minute, isn’t plotting the violent overthrow of the state the sort of thing radicals get thrown into prison for?

On the other hand, I’ve followed the development in US constitutional scholarship over the last couple of decades, where people like Akhil Reed Amar have argued persuasively that the 2nd amendment really did mean that individuals get to have weapons. And I’ve heard enough stories of people, particularly women, with good reason to fear for their lives and no good reason to expect the police to do anything more than pull a sheet over their body and arrest their ex-husband when it’s over, and the argument that they should get to make their own decisions about how to manage their fear makes a certain sense to me. And while I’m happy to live (normally) in a country where almost no one has a gun, and the murder rate is one fourth that in the US, I understand that it’s not just the guns, and even if it were just the guns, just changing the US laws would not by itself give us British levels of homicide. But still, I’d be all in favour of banning nearly all guns from nearly everyone in the US.

So I was brought up short by this brief essay on US gun culture posted from a reader email on the news site Talking Points Memo. He argued that the gun culture is analogous to the computer culture.

Just as gun people grow up with guns, are completely comfortable with them, and use them as tools or toys, computer people are comfortable using computers almost as an extension of their minds, in ways that mere consumers of computer technology are not.

I am certainly one of these “computer people”. I’m not particularly fascinated by technologyy, but I understand computers, and I like computational solutions to problems.I remember very clearly the early days of PGP — it appeared during the early days of my grad school career, and it was definitely a topic of discussion — and my sympathies were unequivocally with the people who wanted to make strong cryptography available to the maasses. I saw cryptography as clearly a force for good, and thought of the government bureaucrats trying to block the spread of this technology as some combination of tyrants, reactionaries, and anachronisms who have not recognised that the spread of strong cryptography is inevitable.

In that, I was like an old-school Marxist, believing I had seen the unstoppable trend of history, and identified supporting that trend with a moral stance. Of course, the paradigm encrypter, in my world-view, was a brave Chinese pro-democracy activist, or a journalist protecting whistle-blowers, or ordinary citizens wanting their private thoughts to remain private, and not a money launderer, terrorist, or child pornographer. And the paradigm decrypter was a journalist uncovering government corruption and corporate malfeasance; not industrial spies and narcs.

This is parallel to the way gun-rights activists think of the hunter and the brave paterfamilias defending his suburban homestead against the crack-crazed home invaders as the paradigm gun users. I don’t agree with them, but the analogy has certainly expanded my sympathy for their point of view.

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