Our Founding Fathers Used Encryption… And So Should You

from the encrypt-all-the-things dept

While the FBI has apparently given up on trying to get a law passed to backdoor encryption, the ridiculous debate over “going dark” continues. Thankfully, at least some more knowledgeable folks in the government have been speaking up more loudly over the past few months. Just last week, the government’s Chief Information Officer, Tony Scott, came out against backdooring encryption:

On this debate, CIO Scott is clear: ?I think in the long run we are probably not well served by backdoors to encryption and in general we end up benefiting as a society by having very strong non-hackable encryption,? he said. ?And I say that knowing that it will present some challenges for law enforcement and investigative agencies.?

And, now Seth Schoen and Jamie Williams, over at EFF, have put together a nice bit of history, showing how the US’s founding fathers frequently used encryption themselves. Obviously it was a much earlier version of it, but it seems rather clear that the founding fathers would likely be big supporters of encryption if they were alive today.

  • James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights and the country?s fourth president, was a big user of enciphered communications?and numerous examples from his correspondence demonstrate that. The text of one letter from Madison to Joseph Jones, a member of the Continental Congress from Virginia, dated May 2, 1782, was almost completely encrypted via cipher. And on May 27, 1789, Madison sent a partially encrypted letter to Thomas Jefferson describing his plan to introduce a Bill of Rights.
  • Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the country?s third president, is known to be one of the most prolific users of secret communications methods. He even invented his own cipher system?the ?wheel cypher? as named by Jefferson or the ?Jefferson disk? as it is now commonly referred. He also presented a special cipher to Meriwether Lewis for use in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
  • Benjamin Franklin invented ciphers used by the Continental Congress and in 1748, years before the American Revolution, published a book on encryption written by George Fisher, The American Instructor.
  • George Washington, the first president of the United States, frequently dealt with encryption and espionage issues as the commander of the Continental Army. He is known to have given his intelligence officers detailed instructions on methods for maintaining the secrecy of messages and for using decryption to uncover British spies.
  • John Adams, the second U.S. president, used a cipher provided by James Lovell?a member of the Continental Congress Committee on Foreign Affairs and an early advocate of cipher systems?for correspondence with his wife, Abigail Adams, while traveling.
  • John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, used ciphers for all diplomatic correspondence made while outside the United States. And John Jay?s brother, Sir James Jay, invited a special invisible ink, also known as sympathetic ink, and sent a supply from London to both his brother and then-General Washington.

If it was good enough for them… it’s pretty ridiculous that we’re still having this debate now. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve heard from a few different folks who have insisted that there are bills sitting in drawers ready to go to “ban encryption” (not just backdoor it), and that’s so ridiculous in a world where encryption is used all the time and is a key driver of how we all live. But it’s even more ridiculous when you understand how often it’s been used throughout history.

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Comments on “Our Founding Fathers Used Encryption… And So Should You”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Our government in the late 1700s was very different than it is today, why would you think it could be the same after more than two hundred years?

As someone else already pointed out, it was never intended to be a democracy and it never was.

What is it that you think “they” are doing to prevent a democracy in this country?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

Too bad the second amendment folks cannot see past their gun sights and have not started talking about this as part of their second amendment rights. If encryption is a weapon then the government should be limited in how it can regulate it.

Some people have suggested this, but I think it’s a bad idea for a variety of reasons. It opens the door to classifying encryption as a kind of “munition” and regulating it through other ways. Encryption should not be treated as a weapon at all.

Quiet Lurcker says:

Re: Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

Except, that’s already happened.

Reference https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Export_of_cryptography_from_the_United_States, under the topic ‘cold war era’.

Classifying encryption technology as a munition should (by extension) bring it under the umbrella of the second amendment. Such as that umbrella is, these days.

Working the opposite direction, yes, by extension we should be allowed to possess and – where necessary – use anything and everything up to and including nuclear weapons.

Personally, I can only name one target inside the U.S. for nuclear strike that I would consider legitimate…

Outside the U.S.? That’s another story altogether which is neither here nor there for this conversation.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

Personally, I can only name one target inside the U.S. for nuclear strike that I would consider legitimate…

You do realize not everyone who lives in Hollywood works for the MafiAA, yes? Or, perhaps you’re thinking of DC? Lots of innocent civilians live in DC too. Ditto Texas, New York, …

Nukes are indiscriminate WMDs, not defensive weapons. Even in the Cold War, they were an illegitimate response. You don’t wipe out life on the entire planet just because your enemy one ups you, no matter what nutbars your politicians are.

Outside the U.S.? That’s another story altogether which is neither here nor there for this conversation.

Xenophobe. Stop channeling Curtis LeMay. Nuclear power makes sense in reactors to generate electricity, not as a military response option. The sooner we get that plutonium into breeder reactors, the sooner we can solve the energy shortage and climate change (assuming that’s a real thing).

Andrew (profile) says:

Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

That’s mainly because most “Second Amendment folks” are not all that well informed. The 2ndA was not brought about because of internal strife, or worry, but because the founding fathers did NOT ‘support our troops’, which is why they got rid of them; they got rid of the navy entirely, and almost all the army, except a battery of artillary to guard West Point armory, and a regiment of infantry to ‘protect’ the northwest frontier against “Indian attack”. Instead of the army, they decided to go with a citizens militia self-defence force. That’s what the first part of the Amendment refers to.

Of course, after 1100 members of the regiment with some militia backing lost 900+ men to an Indian force of 1000 (who lost ~35) in St Cloud’s defeat, which led to the re-creation of the Army (just as the Barbary Pirates led to the Navy being started up again).

However, they couldn’t exactly get rid of the 2nd Amendment (there’s no means to remove one, as the 21st shows, and they’d spent most of their political capital on getting those 10 passed, with one of the other 2 presented with them not being passed until 1991 as the 27th), but they did add a lot of requirements as to what counted and what didn’t.

Basically, it’s not about self defence, or tyranny of your own government, it was about trying to save a buck and avoid a strong military, exactly the opposite of what you’re suggesting they do.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Re: No comparison

And they had cannons, not just muskets. No relevance here.

This speaks to intent. And since, practically speaking, their ciphers couldn’t be decoded by unintended recipients of their day, the encryption was equally effective as ours… a relative measure of strength.

“The framers” believed in shielding communications from prying eyes when necessary, just like most of us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No comparison

by the definition of the 2nd we actually do have that right.

Anyone that is okay with watering any portion of the constitution down has no right to complain when their favorite parts are additionally watered down along with the ones you disagree with.

The only legal way to change this is to create and amendment. I am pretty sure if someone added an amendment that said that said citizens cannot be allowed to own nukes, it would make it through. The problem will be where all the anti-gun nuts would try to make every gun right down to a pop-cap gun illegal making any sane amendments possible, therefore were I to ever serve on a jury I would never find any single citizen guilty for possession of a firearm under any circumstance, I do not care if they were a past criminal or used it to rob a bank. I would still find them guilty of threat/use with/of a deadly weapon however, just not for the mere possession of one.

Anonymous Coward says:

The REAL problem is...

the fact that the government has gotten so corrupt that they feel they have a right & duty to spy on its citizens, break encryption and generally do just about what ever they think they need to “PROTECT” us from evil boogey men while not even realizing that they are becoming that very boogey man!

This nations laws were never written to sustain a government that operates in a do first offer apology later, fashion. Far too many citizens mistakenly believe this does not impact them on some level and continue to vote in the officials that turn a blind eye to the suffering of their people because they think that scale is a small one.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

In the Dune series, computers are outlawed, and the great houses use secret hand and body gesture languages to speak to each other secretly, even in the same room as their enemies. I would call what they did in Dune closer to steganography than encryption, but it’s the same effect.

Would they ban all forms of concealment along with encryption? Ban gathering in private?

Either way, good luck banning ingenuity. It’s always been my belief that fighting something only puts evolutionary pressure on it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Founding Fathers would be classified as terrorists in this day and age.

Did they use encryption to conceal their communications? Check

Did they use violence to overthrow the current British government in order to push their own political ideology? Check

There’s no doubt about it. America is founded on terrorism.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The Indians who were kicked off their land and forced to walk from North Carolina to Oklahoma down the Trail of Tears, with over half their friends and family members dying along the way.

Sounds pretty terrifying to me. Not to mention that any use of violence to advance one’s political ideology is the legal definition of terrorism.

To suggest that Americans are exempt from the standards we hold all other countries to is known as “American exceptionalism”. It’s a common thought process among most of the American public.

GEMont (profile) says:

Us and Them

I think there may be some misconception delivered in this article.

If you will note, all the above persons were members of the Ruling Class, of Government, or simply wealthy men of power.

While it can be stated that they were all citizens, they were definitely not considered to be part of the general rabble – the public.

You see, the government and business have no intention whatsoever of Not using encryption in their communications.

If banned, it will be banned only for public usage.

It is only the public – Fascist Enemy Number One – The Adversary – The Great Wallet – who must exist without encryption in its communications, to facilitate easy exploitation and control by the ruling class parasites.

All legislation which attempts to end or limit encryption will necessarily include this simple division of Us and Them, if not by clear language, then by omission.

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