Bitcoins, Wikileaks, 3D printers, PGP and the gov's battle against information

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on May 13, 2013

From The News Desk

The U.S. government has a hard enough time parrying foreign threats like terrorist groups and hostile nations but it’s the unfettered distribution of information in the form of software that could pose the greatest threat of all.

In the past few years we’ve seen the emergence of Wikileaks, Bitcoins and 3D printers – paradigm busters that resist regulation or control by outside forces. Each has the potential to make all of us a little bit freer. The promise of Wikileaks is that it brings greater transparency to government, whose knee-jerk reaction to criticism is to file anything potentially embarrassing or even criminal as top secret, outside the public’s prying eyes. Bitcoins promise complete anonymous economic transactions. 3D printers allow users to create products at home they defy the government’s ability to regulate them.

Each also has its martyr, or at least a martyr in waiting.

With Wikileaks it is its founder Julian Assange, the hacker turned radical info anarchist who’s holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and under constant threat of prosecution by U.S. authorities. Vice President Joe Biden called Assange “a high-tech terrorist” as did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, adding, “He has done enormous damage to our country. I think he needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Bitcoins’ mysterious creator, Satoshi Nakamoto – almost certainly a pseudonym – evaporated into the ether but his brainchild lives on, and at some point it’s conceivable the government will try to either regulate or destroy it if it becomes widely adopted. With more than $1 billion worth of Bitcoins in circulation that could happen any time now. In the past the government has aggressively fought back threats to the U.S. dollar’s preeminence. There’s the lesson of Bernard von Nothaus, a “monetary architect” who created his own currency based on precious metals called the “Liberty Dollar.” After von Mothaus managed to inject some $60 million of his homemade currency into circulation, a government prosecutor accused him of “domestic terrorism” for attempting to undermine the government. Unlike with Liberty Dollars and Wikileaks, there’s no single person identified with the movement.

As for 3D printers, there’s Cody Wilson, a radical libertarian who printed his own handgun from a 3D printer. The problem isn’t the gun, though. It’s the blueprints for the “Liberator” handgun that his group, Defense Distributed, posted to its site,

The State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance sent Wilson a letter, ordering Wilson to take down blueprints, as well as nine other firearms components such as silencers and sights. The State Department instructed Wilson to treat the materials as covered by arms export control laws known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. (Andy Greenberg at Forbes has excellent coverage here and here.)

Wilson told Greenberg the government’s dusting off of ITAR to squelch the dissemination of information recalls tactics it deployed going after encryption in the 1990s, another phenomenon that defies governmental control. Long before anyone ever heard of Bitcoins, Wikileaks or 3D printers, there was PGP (it stands for Pretty Good Privacy), a free and relatively easy-to-use email encryption program. Its creator, Philip Zimmermann, a software engineer, was working as a military policy analyst for an anti-nuke group in the 1980s when he began to develop a method for people to communicate safely and securely. His initial goal was to protect both human rights overseas and grassroots political organizations at home.

In 1991 he uploaded PGP to an FTP site and invited friends to download it. In the original PGP users’ guide Zimmermann wrote:

 It's personal. It's private. And it's no one's business but yours. You may be planning a political campaign, discussing your taxes, or having a secret romance. Or you may be communicating with a political dissident in a repressive country. Whatever it is, you don’t want your private electronic mail (email) or confidential documents read by anyone else. There's nothing wrong with asserting your privacy. Privacy is as apple-pie as the Constitution.

Some time after a user posted his copy of PGP on the Internet for anyone to download. (Zimmermann claimed it wasn’t him.) According to an article published in Info Nation circa 1995, “In 1991, right after the Gulf War, there was a bill before the U.S. Senate (S.266) that would have had the effect of banning public key encryption altogether. Faced with this situation, some activists in the Bay Area decided that if they could spread public key encryption around widely enough, the genie would be out of the bottle and there'd be no way for Uncle Sam to get it back in again. They took a copy of Zimmermann's program and uploaded it to as many bulletin boards and Internet sites as they could.”

It spread like music over peer-to-peer networks like Napster to FTP sites around the globe. This presented a problem for America’s intelligence gathering services because it made it difficult to snoop on email communications abroad. Foreign spies could use an American-made product, given away free, to cloak their communications from, say, the CIA’s prying eyes. What’s more some governments outlawed the use of encryption by their citizens, causing geopolitical friction.

While Americans had and still have the right to encrypt private conversations PGP was classified as a munition under ITAR, which forbade the export of cryptography stronger than 40-bits. At the time PGP could encrypt messages at 1,024 bits. The government opened an investigation that lasted three years then suddenly and without warning dropped it.

Cody Wilson is correct that there are parallels. PGP spread to sites and the government couldn’t stop it. The same goes for the blueprints of the handgun he posted online. Tens of thousands of people from around the world downloaded the plans. Even though they are not available on anymore they can be found elsewhere, and the long arm of American law is powerless to stop that.

The government can’t completely stop Bitcoins, Wikileaks, 3D printers and PGP either; it can only try to mitigate the threat they pose to its powers. It hasn't been able to stamp out hackers, the ultimate information warriors, either, even though they have long been in the sights of federal prosecutors, with potential sentences far outstripping the seriousness of the crimes – if indeed the crimes actually took place. In one case an Internet security professional found a hole in AT&T's website that revealed more than 100,000 email addresses belonging to iPad users. He told a journalist and was ultimately convicted of two felony counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, sentenced to 41 months in prison and ordered to pay $73,000 in restitution to AT&T. And let's not forget Aaron Swartz, who faced up to 35 years in jail and $1 million fine for little more than downloading too many articles.

Like its war on drugs, the government can try to make it more difficult for its citizens to procure information, incarcerate those it can catch, but if people want them, they’ll find a way to get them.