Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption

By in Communications on September 10, 2013

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1999 IEEE-USAB Award for Distinguished Literary Contributions Furthering Public Understanding of the Profession. and Winner of the 1998 Donald McGannon Award for Social and Ethical Relevance in Communication Policy Research

Telecommunication has never been perfectly secure, as a Cold War culture of wiretaps and international spying taught us. Yet many of us still take our privacy for granted, even as we become more reliant than ever on telephones, computer networks, and electronic transactions of all kinds. Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau argue that if we are to retain the privacy that characterized face-to-face relationships in the past, we must build the means of protecting that privacy into our communication systems.

Diffie and Landau strip away the hype surrounding the policy debate to examine the national security, law enforcement, commercial, and civil liberties issues. They discuss the social function of privacy, how it underlies a democratic society, and what happens when it is lost.There was a time when cryptography–the making and breaking of secret codes–was of interest only to spies, diplomats, and the occasional eccentric. Those days are over, and the reason, as Diffie and Landau explain, is that secret codes have become the key to preserving traditional notions of privacy at a time when technology is rapidly altering the nature of human communication.

When the vast majority of conversations happened face to face, keeping them private was a simple matter of stepping away from the listening crowd. But the growing number of conversations that take place over easy-to-intercept phone lines and e-mail channels requires more sophisticated safeguards. Above all, it requires online encryption tools of the highest grade, and this book does a good job of explaining how these tools work, both in principle and in practice. It does a better job, though, of explaining why the tools matter. The intense political battles that have surrounded digital cryptography in recent years are a testament to the profound political implications of privacy in the online era, and Diffie and Landau have delivered an admirably thorough overview of both the struggles and the stakes. If at times their thoroughness bogs them down in dry recitations of detail, their book at least generates more light than heat, and that can hardly be said of most contributions to the cryptography debate so far. –Julian Dibbell

2 thoughts on “Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption

  1. 1
    7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Freedom is Privacy-based, January 6, 2002
    By A Customer

    For those out of the crypto loop, the lead author, Whitfield Diffie was co-developer of public key encryption technology at Stanford several decades ago and stands as one of the most knowledgeable figures in the field of cryptography. Though the public policy aspects of cryptography are an important part of what this book is about, it is really a book with much broader implications, especially with the passage of the Patriot Act which strips U.S. citizens of any meaningful court oversight in the search and surveillance arenas. Now that the justice department has unleashed the Magic Lantern trojan horse on the public, the warnings found in this book pale by comparison since it was written before 9/11 events. The author delineates the many rationale for why respect for privacy is a good idea and how arguments to the contrary are basically flawed. Those in law enforcement and national security roles cyclically lobby for totalitarian capabilities, get them, become insatiable with MKULTRA type scenarios, get discovered, get their hands slapped and start over again when the headlines subside. Meanwhile taxpayers take a beating in lost jobs, ruined reputations, unwarranted jail time, suicides and the like. Since it is obvious that lawmakers have been delinquent in learning these lessons, what will happen when someone detonates a nuclear device in a large city and the justice department introduces legislation for mandatory implants? How will you be able to turn back after that? Tick, tick, tick…
    Read Diffie, think hard about lessons unlearned and what you can do about it. Ask your lawmakers to MAKE NEW MISTAKES.

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  2. 2
    4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The most important book written on the future of our privacy, January 12, 1998
    By A Customer
    This review is from: Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption (Hardcover)

    This is the most clearly written book on the sources of the problems facing our right to privacy that I have seen yet. Well documented, well written and shows just what the Federal Government is doing to eliminate our ability to have private communication. I suggest that this book should be considered urgent reading. It could be the one that wakes everybody up.

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