26 October 2020 · 1 min read

When Encryption Was a Crime: The 1990s Battle for Free Speech in Software

In 1977, a team of cryptographers at MIT made an astonishing discovery: a mathematical system for encrypting secret messages so powerful that it had the potential to make government spying effectively impossible.

Before the MIT team could publish a description of how this system worked, the National Security Agency (NSA) made it known that doing so could be considered a federal crime. The 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) made it illegal to distribute munitions in other countries without a license, including cryptography. The penalty for violating AECA was up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to one million dollars.

It was the beginning of the "crypto wars" - the legal and public relations battle between the intelligence community and privacy activists over the rights of citizens to use end-to-end encryption. Many of those who were involved in the crypto wars were associated with the "cypherpunk movement," a community of hackers, hobbyists, and computer scientists, which the mathematician Eric Hughes once described as "cryptography activists."

The crypto wars continue to this day: On October 11, 2020, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr issued a joint statement with officials from six other countries that implored tech companies not to use strong end-to-end encryption in their products so that law enforcement agencies can access the communications of their customers.