Zimmermann's Law: PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder Phil Zimmermann on the surveillance society

21 thoughts on “Zimmermann's Law: PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder Phil Zimmermann on the surveillance society”

  1. “What we have wrought, we never imagined it would get like this.”: Actually, some of us always imagined it would get like this, and I find it difficult to believe Zimmermann isn’t among us. There’s no mystery here. Even if one is willing to assume Alexander et al. have only the best intentions (I’m not, but grant it for discussion), just consider their incentives. If there’s another episode like September 11, 2001 or worse, their necks will be on the block for failing to forestall it. So naturally they’re inclined to collect every bit of information they can that might conceivably help them avoid that fate. Their incentives to exercise restraint, respect the fourth amendment, etc. are much weaker, *unless* the elected officials who supposedly oversee them insist on it, which means among other things *not* giving them nearly carte-blanche licenses like the Patriot Act. Regrettably, the incentives of the elected officials are similar. They have far more to fear from the public hysteria that would follow another big “terrorist attack” than from the likes of Zimmermann, Malik, and me decrying the excesses of the surveillance state. The efforts of some politicians to tar others as “soft on terrorism” makes matters worse, much as with “soft on communism” during the mid-twentieth century.

    “The harm we have done to our society has come as a reaction to 9/11.”: I remember sitting in a waiting room at the UC Davis Medical Center that day, watching TV reports, and thinking that what would follow is exactly what has followed: the curtailment of civil liberties, particularly the right to privacy, in the name of national security, with little possibility of a clean-cut end, because The Enemy was no longer a nation that could be definitively defeated. I feel like I’ve been watching a train wreck in slow motion ever since.

    “Cynicism has a paralyzing effect”: What has a discouraging if not paralyzing effect on me and, I suspect, many others is the fact that practically none of The People Who Matter in Washington, DC – the president, congressional leaders, and federal judges – seem to feel any interest in changing course. It’s worth remembering that only one member of the senate, Russ Feingold, had the courage, decency, and intelligence to vote against the Patriot Act, which needed no “secret interpretation” to be patently disastrous for civil liberties. Given how the vast majority of America’s politicians have behaved for the past twelve years, expecting things to keep getting worse is reasonable, not cynical. I’ll keep decrying, but I can’t say I have high hopes.

    1. Ralph

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. On your closing argument, all I would say — let’s hold on to the idealism and not stop trying. You seem to be the kind of person who can make a rational argument so keep doing that. Again, thanks for writing that comment.

  2. I found the Zimmerman’s comment about “a change in government” especially disturbing. His implication is that one of the political parties is less or more likely to do harm. Abuse of data collected on the citizenry is not a political problem – the institutions of the state will use whatever means at their disposal to maintain and grow their power, whether it is the Politburo, the Reichstadt, the IRS or the EPA. When threatened, the gloves will come off and the claws will lash out. Institutions, like any organic being, will use any means to survive and surveillance loads the gun for them to target those who seek change.

    For those of a literary bent, a book written 40 years ago by Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow” set during WWII made the assertion that the transistor wasn’t invented, but merely discovered. That it was always there, waiting, and that it “created its own great wind” that was an irresistible force, as Zimmerman seems to imply about Moore’s Law. Pynchon even went so far as to posit that “once the cameras are small enough” reality would also become something engineered and controlled.

    While cynicism can lead to corruption, resignation to in the face of forces seemingly gargantuan and unstoppable leads to something much worse. In the long run, rules/laws cannot restrain the onslaught, and policy, while better and absolutely necessary, cannot effect long-term change. It is up to the people to exhibit and demand public virtue, something we are in very short supply of these days,

    1. I think you misunderstood the “change in government” comment. In a parliamentary context that might refer to an election yielding a new party in the majority. In the USA, however, it’s more likely he meant a change in the form of government, i.e., a new constitution. (That being said, a tyranny could certainly be constructed upon the current form.)

  3. Why all this spying on citizens? When even before the terrorist attacks in Boston Russian secret services warned the American police Tsarnaevyh of links with terrorist groups, but U.S. intelligence agencies ignored these warnings.

  4. Great stuff. But: “If China was to intercept our phone calls, I wouldn’t like that but I wouldn’t worry that Chinese authorities would bang on my door and haul me to prison because I don’t live in China.” Tell that to the families of people killed by US drones.

    1. Matthias

      The human condition has never been so good and so bad as it is today. In the end, we all have a bit of a selfish lens on how we view the world. Thanks for reading the post.

  5. Quote from JXM above –

    “The institutions of the state will use whatever means at their disposal to maintain and grow their power, whether it is the Politburo, the Reichstadt, the IRS or the EPA. When threatened, the gloves will come off and the claws will lash out.”

    Just to elaborate on this – “Statism is Dead” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGIgOIFdnMQ

  6. The idea that any kind of ‘push back’ from the general population will make a blind bit of difference is as laughable as it is naive. The political pantomime keeps the masses thinking their choices make any kind of difference, even after we see how ‘Yes We Can!’ Obama does nothing but reinforce the acts of the Republican administrations. They are all the same, following an agenda we are not privy to.
    Move to the country, get off the internet and just get on with living.

  7. What’s great about the example Mr. Zimmerman is setting for us now: More than just sharing his opinions, he’s walking his talk. Shutting down the company he co-founded rather than co-opt his principles is a courageous act. It is all the more amazing considering all the established companies that failed to put up the least amount of visible resistance. Thanks, Phil!

  8. The most pernicious example of the loss of privacy was recently demonstrated by the Drug Enforcement Agency. They were alerted to the existence of a drug operation by NSA data collectors who had neither probable cause nor a warrant. To deceive the judicial system, DEA crafted an investigation to document facts they already knew by illegal means. In their minds, it was just like using a snitch, but it wasn’t.

    The object of our legal system is to protect our lives, property and our liberties. Couple the state surveillance systems with the explosion of government regulation and virtually every citizen could be arrested for some offense every day – what Glenn Reynolds calls the “ham sandwich nation.”

    We, the people, must push back very hard.

  9. I post as somebody who initially had few problems with the PATRIOT Act. I am now horrified at what has happened. This isn’t a partisan thing (I respected Romney but wouldn’t trust him with these powers) and am livid at Republicans and Democrats opposing even cursory methods to curb the FISA courts absurd stretching of the government’s authority.

    Even worse, the government is not the worst violator of privacy and that is profoundly depressing.

    Our SOCIETY has become the Stasi. And people don’t seem to care. It’s disheartening. Google, Facebook, etc should be nailed with antitrust suits but they never will be. People should be livid when their communications are not protected.

    It should be doubly infuriating that the trampling of our rights isn’t even effective. It’s not like terrorism has been impacted terribly. We sacrifice freedom for no better security.

  10. I wish you had — wait! Awesome. Past possible lives include cryptographer Ron Rivest:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivest

    Then Phil Zimmerman, boom-boom, bang-bang, lie down, you’re dead such that I wish both of these commented on a computability place to stay. Poppy Om-Ma, what’s wrong with encoding and decoding when both sides of the tracks are not to understand or to create? Rather if P = NP, it is a matter of timing. I came in. Humans do no “human” timing, like six connects to every minute 46,000 / 60 = ~7500 times. The first time a song is sung to the last time it fades out, you can hide, hide, hide. It’s really not much longer to denominate the whole song form, from no songs in the interval with only a spurious blip for mankind, birth to death (safe) and North (from Safe) to South, apparently to make them give (by bravely flying) it back.

    Right, we’re low, not real delivered of self.

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