From Crossbows to Cryptography: Thwarting the State via Technology

By Chuck Hammill

Introduction by Noah


The following is a reprint of an article I received from a good Libertarian friend (I think it was Stormy Mon) many years ago. Entitled From Crossbows to Cryptography: Thwarting the State via Technology, by Chuck Hammill, it is an excellent treatise on the effects and benefits of a wide-ranging group of technologies. While the technological and political references are a bit dated, it still rings true. One of the main things I enjoy about this article is that it provides a very good reason why the government regards encryption as a weapon, with all the attendant restrictions attached to such things. Encryption to me as a technologist had always seemed to be quite insane to regard as a munition, until I read this article. Thinking of encryption from this perspective really makes the paranoid fear (bordering on terror, for some) the security apparatus our country has of encryption seem almost rational, if wrong.

            As you read further, the references to the Soviet Union are quite entertaining. I'm certain the author was as caught by surprise, as were we all, by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. His criticisms of the Soviet Union are very true. In hindsight, the quandaries Hammill speaks of were exactly those the Soviet Union was caught in at the end of the eighties.

The immediate cause of the Soviet Union's demise was excessive military spending coupled with a Communist command economy. Inefficient use of capital due to the lack of a feedback system to determine the relative scarcity of raw materials, the appropriate amount of goods to produce, or even the efficiency of means of production, doomed the command economy to oblivion. In addition, the constant use of excessive capital for consumptive enterprises (military spending) to the detriment of spending on infrastructure and modernization had caused massive damage to the Soviet economy by the 1980's. Gorbachev's first realization was that military spending would have to be reduced and the capital invested in modernizing the civilian economy. To gain the sort of efficiency necessary, the Soviet Union would have to undergo a massive computerization campaign. An example of the seriousness the leadership placed on computerization was to teach students starting in middle-school how to program a computer. This was taught regardless of whether computers were actually available, in order to have enough programmers available when industry could finally produce enough computers! For the reasons Hammill describes, this was a perilous but necessary road to travel. Gorbachev's second realization was if pent up demand for change (the damage to the civilian economy having not gone unnoticed by the civilian population!) was not channeled appropriately, the technological advances that were needed for growth would give rise to an underground that might someday be a direct threat to the state. Gorbachev's mistake (from the Soviet leaderships point of view) was to deal with this by liberalizing the political system first, with disastrous (for him and the Soviet Union at least) results.

Contrast this with modern day China, which faces the exact same problem. The Chinese have taken the approach of first liberalizing the economic sector, then their political institutions. This provides the people with some concrete example of some good the government is doing. This increases popular support for the system and allows the state to institute necessary political reforms, without causing an immediate popular uprising. These political reforms and liberalizations allow the Chinese to tolerate the Internet and all that "subversive" information to be found within. Certainly the Chinese have formal restrictions and censorship in place, but as we all know, these are almost impossible to enforce. As this "subversive" information slowly diffuses throughout the educated elite in China, real reform slowly takes shape. It is this trade-off between the libertarian consequences of technology and the statist control ethic that the Chinese are pulling off so well (from the leadership’s perspective, of course). One cannot help think that the Chinese have taken the Soviet Unions answer to this problem as a road map as to what NOT to do. The obvious risk that the Chinese are taking, is if they are unable to continue their economic growth, they will undermine their political bargain with the people. With the current economic troubles in Asia, this risk is becoming all the more frightening to the leadership.

A good example of how these ideas can be subversive to any statist nation (not just heinous examples as the Soviet Union and China), I would like to quote a passage from the piece.

"Consider that, for a fraction of the investment in time, money and effort I might expend in trying to convince the state to abolish wiretapping and all forms of censorship -–I can teach every Libertarian who’s interested how to use cryptography to abolish them unilaterally."

I wonder sometimes if Phil Zimmerman was at this conference way back in 1987, or stumbled across this paper molding away in some "subversive" friends library. I have always liked to think so.

Aside from some spelling changes (through for thru as an example), I have decided to leave the article unchanged. If you find errors in this article, please notify me.

The end of the article refers to an organization that the author was trying to create, which I do not believe is still in existence (if so, please contact me). It sounds like a 50 / 50 mixture of a Libertarian / Anarchist leaning political organization, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Enjoy!

Crossbows to Cryptography

PLEASE NOTE: This article is printed WITHOUT PERMISSION from the author. This is because I do not know how to locate him. If you know who he is, and can contact him, please contact me so I can obtain his permission, or remove this article from this site. I publish it because I feel that the author would welcome as far and as wide a distribution as possible for the opinions expressed herein. If I did not, I wouldn’t put it on the Web, after all!