The Crypto Wars – How We Arrived at Apple vs United States

This week our team is in San Francisco attending the RSA 2016 Security conference. It is the largest security conference in the world with over 40,000 attendees this year. We’re also here for the BSides San Francisco security conference which happened right before RSA and which is a smaller independent locally organized conference.

These conferences cover the larger subject of information security and our specific interest is of course web security and WordPress in particular. New zero day vulnerabilities, research and data are often disclosed at conferences like RSA and BSides. They are also a great way for vendors, researchers and government to share intelligence on what is happening in the wild and discuss emerging threats.

There were several exciting developments at RSA yesterday including the announcement that Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman are the winners of this year’s Turing award, the Computer science equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

In this video blog from San Francisco, I chat about what happened at RSA (This was recorded on Tuesday night) and I’m including an interview I did with Kurt Opsahl who is the Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

In case you don’t know who the EFF is and what they do, they’re an organization who has been fighting for our digital rights for a long time. In the interview, Kurt explains some of the history of the EFF and he gives us an overview of the “crypto wars” starting in the 1990’s through to today.

As Kurt explains in the interview, it all started with a small business called Steve Jackson Games getting raided by the Secret Service because someone posted a document to their bulletin board system called E911. The document described how the 911 system works and it was seen as a security risk.

The Secret Service confiscated all computer equipment at Steve Jackson Games and then read and deleted private emails. The EFF sued the government on behalf of the book publisher and they established the principle that email should be given at least as much protection under the law as telephone calls.

The EFF then went on to take on a case where a PhD student at the University of California, Dan Bernstein, was prohibited by the government from publishing an encryption program called Snuffle that he had created because they said it was classified as munitions under the law and regulated as such. In this case, the EFF sued the government and argued that computer code is a form of speech and is therefore protected under the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech. The court ruled in their favor which was a groundbreaking decision.

Kurt then brings us up to date describing how we got to the situation with Apple today – and which we have blogged about previously.

It’s interesting to note that Apple now appears to be making a few constitutional arguments of their own. They recently argued that forcing them to unlock the iPhone: “amounts to compelled speech and viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.“.

It sounds like Apple is borrowing several pages out of the EFF’s 1990’s playbook. Here is my interview with Kurt Opsahl….

You can visit to learn more about their storied history. The EFF is a foundation that relies on donations, and you can donate to the EFF on this page if you’d like to contribute.

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  • Wow that was an interesting video. Thanks for doing the interview with EFF. Keep up the good work.

  • According to your interview with Mr Opsahl, it was the FBI not the Secret Service, that raided Steve Jackson Games.

    • It was in fact the Secret Service. Kurt misspoke in the interview.

  • A big, heartfelt thanks to all of these unsung heroes, who protect us from Orwellian threats from our government on a constant basis. How narrowly the government defines the law when it comes to the rights of private citizens and then how broadly they define it when it is politically or socially expedient for them, such as unauthorized spying, wire tapping, and prying into our digital communications which should have First Amendment protection. I am glad to see the digital community coming together to take a stand against continued government intrusion into our lives in the name of 'national security', a phrase they bandy about so easily when they're trying to erode yet another freedom.