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.

Filed Under: encryption, found fathers, james madison, jim comey, thomas jefferson


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  • icon
    rw (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 8:58am

    Actually, it's not surprising that we are having this debate now. Our government today has about as much in common with its early years as man has to monkeys. They were trying to live in a real democracy then and now they are doing their best to prevent it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Vincent Clement (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:08am

      Re:

      By real democracy, do you mean the one where only a free adult male property owner could vote? The founding fathers had some good ideas, but it's stretching the truth to say they were trying to live in a real democracy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:10am

        Re: Re:

        "but it's stretching the truth to say they were trying to live in a real democracy."

        So what were they trying to live in then? Please, provide your notes so we can all compare.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 12:57pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          They should be trying to live in a Republic.
          We are not a democracy, real or imagined.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Wendy Cockcroft, 4 Nov 2015 @ 5:48am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            If that's true, explain elections.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Just Another Anonymous Troll, 4 Nov 2015 @ 5:53am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            A republic is a democracy. Early America may not have been a good democracy by our standards, but it was a democracy.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              DNY (profile), 5 Nov 2015 @ 8:07am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Um, no. A republic may have democratic elements to its constitution, as may a monarchy. But a republic certainly need not a democracy in either the classical or modern sense -- the Roman Republic and the Serene Republic of Venice come readily to mind as counterexamples to your assertion that a republic is a democracy.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 4:48pm

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 10:35am

    Your founding fathers have been labeled terrorists by your government and the DHS has been teaching police departments that for years now

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 10:45am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:02am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Quiet Lurcker, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:11am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          tqk (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 7:43pm

          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).

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Whoever, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:33am

        Re: Re: Encryption as a *1st* amendment right

        Encryption is a form of expression, right? So Encryption should be protected under the first amendment.

        Just for LOLs, how about an encryption system that produces outputs ASCII art? It doesn't have to be good art to be protected.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 12:53pm

        Re: Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

        It is already classified as a munition. Any U.S. company that sells software abroad must disclose the type of encryption.
        https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/policy-guidance/encryption/encryption-faqs

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:06am

      Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

      Numbers aren't a weapon any more then the alphabet is, how about we start regulating the right to read and learn too? (Even if I know some would love for that to happen too).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Andrew (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:53am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 4:52pm

      Re: Encryption as a 2nd amendment right

      Do I need a license to whisper?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 10:51am

    No comparison

    Today's encryption is much stronger than it was in the 1700s. By your same argument we should also be able to use bazookas and nuclear weapons.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:03am

      Re: No comparison

      Indeed, only the government should have access to all that advance math.
      Who needs anything more then 2+2 anyway? Clearly got something to hide.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Vidiot (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:07am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:23am

        Re: Re: No comparison

        ..."The framers" believed in shielding communications from prying eyes when necessary...

        Which meant face-to-face communication, or messages delivered by trusted courier.

        Kind of like present day terrorist organizations that don't trust modern communication methods.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 2:26pm

          Re: Re: Re: No comparison

          ...you do realize that those were the only available methods of communication in the 1700s, right?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ChurchHatesTucker (profile), 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:10am

      Re: No comparison

      Code breaking is also much stronger. If we were all walking around in bazooka proof vests your analogy might hold, but what you're really advocating is Eighteenth Century locks on our doors.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:10am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:11am

      Re: No comparison

      So are the techniques for breaking encryption. IOW, it is not significantly more difficult to deal with encrypted communications today than it was back in the 1700's.

      It is easier to apply encryption more broadly, courtesy of computers and networks.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2015 @ 6:10am

      Re: No comparison

      Srsly? So it would not take 20y to break the 1700s cipher in 1700s?
      Even breaking Enigma - which you'd be able to break now in seconds using microcontrollers big as a grain of sand - took years in 1940's. With war budgets.
      In other words - you are blinded by your hindsight.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:05am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2015 @ 6:15am

      Re: The REAL problem is...

      The real problem is... Your lack of understanding the societies have exactly the governments they deserve.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 11:45am

    Boiled down to the basics, encryption simply prevents most people from "understanding" the message.

    Like how the secret FISA courts encrypt the laws so that when common people look at them, they read one way; and when FISA courts read them, they are decrypted correctly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 12:06pm

    They actually invented the "pass" "word"

    The founding fathers, well their forebears, literally invented the term pass word. Ciphers, code, all considered extremely important to the Mason's who founded this country/democracy....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 4:10pm

    Encrypt everything. Fuck the tyrants.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 3 Nov 2015 @ 6:38pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2015 @ 9:34pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2015 @ 11:41am

      Re:

      Violence isn't the same thing as terror.
      Who exactly did the revolutionary American's terrorize?
      King George?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Nov 2015 @ 11:06pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 4 Nov 2015 @ 1:10pm

    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.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DNY (profile), 5 Nov 2015 @ 7:53am

    Good enough for the Founders (shhhh! don't let the SJW's hear you)

    Oh, great! Once this becomes well-known, all the SJW's who fancy the Founders were all racist slaveholders and everything they did was illegitimate will all pile onto the anti-strong encryption bandwagon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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