Monday, 22 May 2006

Who Needs Privacy without Liberty?

I was originally going to call this post "Pretty Good Astroturf — What Happened to PGP at the Grass Roots?"

The Register has a good piece on Whatever Happened to PGP? As a PGP (now GnuPG user for at least ten years, I was immediately interested.

PGP, for those of you who might not remember, stands for "Pretty Good Privacy". It was arguably the first widely-deployed, open, cross-platform public key cryptography (encryption and electronic signatures) software systems. At one time, the growth in usage looked like China's economic output — respectful transitioning to breathtaking, with people confidently forecasting 'incredible' within the near future. Then a funny thing happened.

People — ordinary individuals, what politicos call the "grass roots" — stopped being so interested in PGP, and PKI in general. It turned out that people were willing to be sold on the idea that the only thing they needed encryption for was to work with a "secure Web page" in their browser, so they could order stuff using a credit card. The idea that people might want to keep their personal communication private, or be able to make messages and files that they create tamper-proof, just went completely below the radar. This "just happened" to "coincide" with the increasingly shrill jingoistic/"security" propaganda being drummed into the skill of ordinary Americans; security and identity management were no longer something that many ordinary people could use and control without feeling it all either a bit ridiculouse or seditious, depending on one's politics. Still, public discussion and enthusiasm — at least among "mainstream" Americans — seemed to diminish from about 2001 onwards. The travails that PGP went through didn't help grassroots individual use — first with the US government trying to crush Phil Zimmerman, the original developer, and then the soap-operatic sagas by which Network Associates, Inc. acquired and then almost literally threw away the original PGP code base.

But, as the Register article points out, there was one very significant group of users who jumped on PGP. Since PGP depends on a "web of trust" — A trusts C because A knows and trusts B and B asserts his trust for C — the use of PGP within widespread organisations, where some central IT or other department can certify (and possibly issue) PGP keys, is seen as a natural solution to business problems of identity management. Where in the early days, a PGP user might send and encrypted message from his office email account, comfortable in the belief that his corporate masters would be none the wiser, now the corporation is including PGP in its infrastructure.

Grass roots, meet AstroTurf.

Some might see the tone of the Register article as "how can we solve this problem?" But which problem?

Popular use of PGP, or other public-key crypto, would be desirable in a libertarian culture where people valued and guarded their privacy and identity, particularly against encroachment and/or usurpation by a less-than-trusted corporation or the overweening State. While the justification for this exists in the current American social and political system, more than ever before in living memory.... the social impetus doesn't really exist anymore. An educated, informed, watchful and skeptical American population has largely forgotten how to think for itself, delegating that once-vibrant activity to the likes of Faux "News" and the Lobby.

Corporate use, on the other hand, is proceeding apace; and those users would argue that there is no real problem: a business need has been identified, a tool selected that addresses the problem, yielding a solved problem. What's not to like? Errr....yes, well, it does depend on your viewpoint. Was that the original intention that Zimmerman had in writing PGP? Almost certainly not. Does that make the use of PGP in a business environment any less "right" or "proper"? Not if it is to remain "free" as in speech; anybody can usu PGP, as any free software, for any purpose permitted by the license.

What's "wrong" isn't the way that the use of PGP is growing, even though that isn't in a way that necessarily enhances human freedom or liberty, or enhances the security and privacy of individual citizens, as originally intended. Rather, it is that the political and social culture has changed, to where the values of freedom and liberty are no longer widely seen as individually attainable or discernable; rather, people believe themselves to be as free as they are told that they are — and see no need for independent evaluation or confirmation. Technology can be used to aid the solution of social and political problems; it cannot, however, be a "solution" in itself. Just as the old saying goes, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink", you can provide the people of the world, whatever their present situation, with tools to enhance that freedom and liberty — but people will only use the tool if they care about such things. If Huxley's observation is accurate, that "The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people. His servitude is strictly objective" -- then the tools available don't matter. A key is useless to one who does not see she shackles on his own wrists. That, I fear, is the level that far too many Americans — and others — have fallen to.

What happened to PGP? It got better, and became as obsolete as freedom.