Monday, January 02, 2006

Wiretaps, Encryption, and William Safire

For the purposes of this post, I will assume the reader has been following the national debate regarding the National Security Agency's monitoring of the communications of citizens of the USA.  If not, this might not make much sense, or at least will seem irrelevant.

I was amused when I learned today that William Safire disagrees with what he calls the Administration's "excessive security".  William Safire is a columnist for the NYT, and is an avowed conservative.  In fact, he was a White House speechwriter during the Nixon presidency.  He's been an apologist for the Bush 43 administration, perhaps most notably in regards to Plamegate.  Despite his general support for President Bush, he does not like it when the government starts spying on its own people.  

On NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, Safire recalled that he was the subject of a wiretap when he was a White House speechwriter.  The story and transcript are up at Editor & Publisher:

[...] And so they tapped my phone, and for six months, every home phone call I got was tapped. I didn't like that. And when it finally broke--it did me a lot of good at the time, frankly, because then I was on the right side--but it told me how easy it was to just take somebody who is not really suspected of anything for any good reason and listen to every conversation in his home, you know, my wife talking to her doctor, my...everything.

So I have this thing about personal privacy. [...]

And that's why I offended a lot of my conservative and hard-line friends right after September 11th when they started putting these captured combatants in jail, and said the president can't seize dictatorial power. And a lot of my friends looked at me like I was going batty.

But now we see this argument over excessive security, and I'm with the critics on that. [...]
This is not a strong condemnation of the President, but it is yet another instance of an established conservative openly expressing disagreement with one of the President's policies.  

This is perhaps the only public policy matter in which I agree with Safire.  The question is, what to do about it?  Is there some way that we can enhance our own privacy?

Perhaps a few extremely keen-eyed readers have noticed a little change in my sidebar.  The section, "How To Email Me", now contains a link to my public encryption key.  The key is a 1024 bit key, that can be used to send encrypted email.  Sure, the NSA could still read the email, even if encrypted, but that is not the point.  The point is that the NSA would not  read the email unless they really wanted to.  That is because it would take valuable computing power to decrypt it and read it.  They would not be able to scan through thousand of encrypted emails, casually looking for something that might be interesting.  It would take too much computing power, power that they should be applying to real threats.  So the point is not to keep secrets -- that's impossible -- the point is to disrupt the casual scanning of innocent email.  

If enough people start encrypting all their email, then the NSA would be forced to stop and decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether they really need to find out what is in the message.  Which, of course, is what they ought to be doing anyway.

In the past, I've thought about openly advocating the routine encryption of mundane email, just so that people would get to be familiar with the process, in case they ever had a real need to attain a higher degree of privacy.  However, I have never done that, mostly because it would annoy the government if everyone started doing it, and there did not seem to be any point in that.  But now, there is a point.  The government has violated our trust, and they need to know that there are consequences to that.

It is not a strong protest.  It is sort of like high school kids putting their own locks on their school lockers.  The principal can't go snooping at will.  Sure, the school can still break into the locker if they need to, but they can no longer do it routinely; they have to really want to do it.