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Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

VoIP encryption in a surveillance society

Phil Zimmerman, the creator of PGP, will speak on Wednesday in Dennis Allison's class at Stanford about changes in the government's attitude towards encryption. From the lecture announcement:

Phil will talk about how the debate on the use of crypto has shifted since the 1990s, when it was a a clash between civil liberties and law enforcement. Today it is an essential part of protecting our economies from bad guys. Soon, new seismic realignment of government attitudes about encryption may appear. Historically, law enforcement has benefited from a strong asymmetry in the feasibility of government or criminals wiretapping old fashioned telephone calls. As we migrate to VoIP, that asymmetry collapses. Without VoIP encryption, organized crime will be able to wiretap prosecutors and judges, leading law enforcement to see VoIP encryption in a different light. In the 1990s, the crypto debate was about avoiding omniscience in governments, but today the encrypted VoIP debate may be about avoiding omniscience in criminals.

This is a great illustration of Larry Lessig's code is law principle, and a good reminder that changes in the underlying "code" that controls our interactions ultimately can lead to changes in law. (Therefore: don't prematurely code into law things that are in a process of technological change.)

The lecture will be held at 4:15PM, Wednesday, Mar 7, 2007 in the HP Auditorium, Gates Computer Science Building B01 at Stanford.

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Comments: 2

Thomas Lord   [03.07.07 09:47 AM]

I'm not so sure that's a good summary of the "code is law" ideas. If one were to put relative values on things, it's not that important what effect code has on conventional law. It's more important that code competes with law (and usually wins) as the way in which the operations of power are modulated. Traditional law brings the state's theoretical monopoly on force to bear on regulating exercises of freedom. For example, uses of public spaces, trade routes, and so forth are thus subjected to a hypothetically democratic process emerging from a historical process that's been going on for millenia. Code, in its modern role, by contrast, creates and shapes the flows of power -- and with unprecedented efficiency. It makes large swaths of traditional regulatory effort irrelevant by generating substitutes for that which traditional law deals with. That puts our societies in a ridiculously reactive mode as we confront avalanches of shifts in where, how, on whose property, and by what rules we enjoy the right to assemble, to speak, to trade, and so forth. Nostalgic appeals to libertarian idealism -- the thought that, well, we should just let "the markets" decide what forms societally vital code should take -- miss the point that, as we pine for a simpler time, state sovereignty is becoming subject to the coding decisions deployed by a relatively small elite. "Code is the new law of the jungle," might be a good way to unpack the slogan.


Ajeet Khurana   [08.06.07 01:25 PM]

I guess what I get most worried about is the civil liberties bit. Yes, it can be argued that secrecy and sovereign interests are primary (and here one is reminded of Dan Brown's potboiler "Digital Fortress"). But, there is no denying that the spirit of the Internet is further hurt by the ability to use crypto to create a further divide between the haves and have nots.

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