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The Electronic Keyhole

William Staples

Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption. Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landeau. 342 pp. MIT Press, 1998. $25.

Although historians and anthropologists tell us that some form of surveillance has been a part of nearly all societies, it is clear that this activity took on new dimensions in the West with the onset of modernity. Two major developments—industrial production and the monitoring of work performance, and the rise of nation-state bureaucracies and their regulatory functions—made surveillance and information-gathering more formal, impersonal and rationally organized. Since then, social scientists and others have attempted to understand the impact of modern forms of surveillance on political power, social control and individual privacy.

This volume makes an important contribution to this scholarship by focusing on the intersection of new telecommunication technologies and government access to these electronic channels.

For the uninitiated, cryptography involves the transformation of a message into a form that is incomprehensible to anyone who does not have the "key" needed to restore the message into normal text. In Privacy on the Line, Diffie, the inventor of public-key cryptography, and Landeau, a professor of computer science, set out to uncover the technical, social and political aspects of recent debates over wiretapping and encryption. Their thesis is straightforward: Given our increasing reliance on electronic communication, especially in commerce, U.S. government attempts to restrict the availability of cryptography to systems that provide law-enforcement agencies with a "master key" threaten to undermine privacy. Although these agencies claim they cannot ensure public safety without such access, the authors contend that, given the government's history of invading privacy, there is much at stake here. Thus Diffie and Landeau contend, "If people are to enjoy the same effortless privacy in the future as they have in the past, the means to protect that privacy must be built into their communication systems."

Given their backgrounds, I find the authors to be most effective when they are addressing the technical side of the issue. In several very readable chapters, they provide an interesting account of the historical development of cryptography, covering the basics of how the systems work, as well as significant advancements through the wars (both hot and cold). They also do a credible job outlining the social functions of intelligence and law enforcement agencies and their practices and procedures such as wiretapping. Yet I do find in their discussions of the government and of their concerns about privacy in general a tendency toward what I would call misplaced Big Brotherism.

For example, their argument that "when government has the power to invade, abuses occur," rests mainly on dated examples of extraordinary cases such as the FBI's targeting Martin Luther King, Jr., and antiwar activists, among others. (Oddly, a section labeled "The 1990s" contains one small paragraph with two examples of employees "browsing" through government data bases.) These famous cases were egregious abuses indeed. Yet, although the authors readily acknowledge the growth of commercial and corporate surveillance in everyday life, they seem to have little concern for it and even make the dubious claim that governmental data collection "dwarfs that of private enterprise."

I find it ironic that Diffie and Landeau seek to protect the privacy of the U.S. business community with techniques such as cryptography when it is these very organizations that are systematically and wantonly abusing the privacy of their own employees and customers alike. Despite these reservations, I learned quite a bit from Privacy on the Line. Anyone interested in issues of technology, privacy and electronic communication will find it informative as well.—William G. Staples, Sociology, University of Kansas

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