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The Good Old Days in the Cryptography Wars

Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer used to help decipher the Lorenz-encrypted (Tunny) messages between Hitler and his generals during World War II. (Photo: John Levine)

The 20th century was the golden age of surveillance.

High-speed communication went either by telegraph and telephone, which needed a license from the government, or by radio, which anyone can listen to. Codes were manual or electromechanical and were breakable, e.g., the Zimmermann telegram and Bletchley Park. (The UK government spent far more effort inventing a cover story for the source of the telegram than on the break itself, to avoid telling the world how thoroughly they were spying on everyone.) The few secure one-time pads were either so expensive they could only be used for a handful of the most important messages (SIGSALY) or so cumbersome they weren’t used correctly and broken anyway (Venona.)

Historically, that was a very strange time for cryptography and espionage, but it’s what politicians and law enforcement remember as the good old days, and think that it was normal to be able to spy on anyone, anywhere.

That was then. Now we have computers and better algorithms, so any $10 burner phone can do crypto that nobody can break. The algorithms and software are available all over the world. The genie isn’t going back into the bottle, no matter how hard some parties demand that we push.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker

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