You have the right to privacy, except when you’re on the phone


Testimony of Philip R. Zimmermann to the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

26 June 1996….

I’m the creator of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a public-key encryption software package for the protection of electronic mail. Since PGP was published domestically as freeware in June of 1991, it has spread organically all over the world, and has since become the de facto worldwide standard for encryption of E-mail, winning numerous industry awards along the way. For three years I was the target of a criminal investigation by the US Customs Service, who assumed that laws were broken when PGP spread outside the US. That investigation was closed without indictment in January 1996…..

In 1991, Senate Bill 266 included a non-binding resolution, which if it had become real law, would have forced manufacturers of secure communications equipment to insert special “trap doors” in their products, so that the government could read anyone’s encrypted messages. Before that measure was defeated, I wrote and released Pretty Good Privacy. I did it because I wanted cryptography to be made available to the American public before it became illegal to use it. I gave it away for free so that it would achieve wide dispersal, to inoculate the body politic.

The 1994 Digital Telephony bill mandated that phone companies install remote wiretapping ports into their central office digital switches, creating a new technology infrastructure for “point-and- click” wiretapping, so that federal agents no longer have to go out and attach alligator clips to phone lines. Now they’ll be able to sit in their headquarters in Washington and listen in to your phone calls….

A year after the 1994 Digital Telephony bill passed, the FBI disclosed plans to require the phone companies to build into their infrastructure the capacity to simultaneously wiretap one percent of all phone calls in all major US cities. This would represent more than a thousandfold increase over previous levels in the number of phones that could be wiretapped. In previous years, there were only about 1000 court-ordered wiretaps in the US per year, at the federal, state, and local levels combined. It’s hard to see how the government could even employ enough judges to sign enough wiretap orders to wiretap 1% of all our phone calls, much less hire enough federal agents to sit and listen to all that traffic in real time. The only plausible way of processing that amount of traffic is a massive Orwellian application of automated voice recognition technology to sift through it all, searching for interesting keywords or searching for a particular speaker’s voice. If the government doesn’t find the target in the first 1% sample, the wiretaps can be shifted over to a different 1% until the target is found, or until everyone’s phone line has been checked for subversive traffic. The FBI says they need this capacity to plan for the future. This plan sparked such outrage that it was defeated in Congress, at least this time around, in 1995. But the mere fact that the FBI even asked for these broad powers is revealing of their agenda. And the defeat of this plan isn’t so reassuring when you consider that the 1994 Digital Telephony bill was also defeated the first time it was introduced, in 1993.