One of the great privileges of being a longtime news reporter is the great people you get to meet. Often, people we meet and do a few interviews or stories with, turn out to be some of the most important people in the entire world.
In the late 80’s and 90’s I had the privilege to have a few phone calls, a few lunches and a few interviews with a Boulder resident named Phil Zimmerman. No, his name, alone, won’t blow you away at first. But my TV news story on Phil described how he had created PGP, an email and telephonic encryption program in which the acronym meant “Pretty Good Privacy”. It was an such a powerful cryptography program that it couldn’t be broken by those spymasters at the NSA and the CIA. Phil was just a typical Boulder local, a nice guy, a good friend, a fellow who readily and honestly answered all questions.
The U.S Goverment decided to file the most horrendous of criminal charges against Zimmerman, charges of espionage, charges of breaking a new law which prohibited the export of ‘weapons’ to other nations. For three years, Phil Zimmerman was suddenly one of the most heinous criminals on the planet. He was told the criminal charges would be dropped if he created a ‘back door’ in PGP, through which government spies could read all encrypted messages. Phil refused.
Phil laughed at the idea that his cryptography protocol was a weapon. It was just a tool to keep Americans from having their privacy invaded by their own government. After all, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that the Government cannot invade the privacy of Americans’ possessions and papers without a duly issued Warrant. One day Phil made the fateful decision to suddenly release PGP to the world, free of charge.
Phil Zimmerman has been repeatedly named one of the most important figures in the history of the Internet. Had we all taken his advice 22 years ago, there would be no NSA/CIA/IRS spying scandal today, because government agencies would never been allowed to tap into our most private, confidential conversations. All of our conversations and communications would have been buried in a foam of unintelligible PGP digital gibberish.
Today, Phil Zimmerman is a giant in the world of the Internet. He also happens to be one of the most prescient human beings in history. He predicted how the NSA, the CIA, the FBI and the alphabet soup of other secretive organizations would use technology to snoop on the smallest, most inconsequential affairs of common Americans. From the beer date with your buddies, to the illicit affair with an old girlfriend, your own government now owns you, lock, stock, body and soul and your minor indiscretions will forever live in it its databases and be forever useful against you should a time come when you need to be intimidated into silence. Big Brother is here, and he has no legal constraints and no morals.
We happen to be living through the most massively intrusive and illegal spying program in the history of America. Every act you do, every person with whom you speak, ever word you write on your computer (even if it’s never posted) is under the control and the eye of the Central Government. Your personal privacy is gone, a thing of the past. This data is being passed around to various government agencies, and shockingly it’s being handed right back down to local government, and that means something as small and as seemingly trivial as your own Homeowners Association. Doubt me, and I’ll give you specific examples. This is not paranoia. It’s the expert analysis of an investigative reporter with four decades of experience. Homicides have been solved because details of federal spying have been made available to local law enforcement. When you hear that an arsonist has been caught just minutes or hours after setting fire to a remote field in California, there’s good reason to believe that illegally gathered information has been passed down from the national to the local level.
Rapidly solving crimes is a good thing, right? I would agree. But the parallel sacrifice must be pondered. The Fourth Amendment reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? When a high government official muses that it might be legal to kill an American on American soil with a drone strike, does that not sound like a government that’s gone too far? When illegally gathered information is passed on to one political party or another, have we not gone too far? When an HOA board member can call up his buddy in local law enforcement and get a copy of a homeowner’s credit record, Social Security records, income tax returns, banking records and juvenile crime records, is that too far?
On November 13th, 1987, I released a one-hour documentary on the NBC affiliate TV station where I worked. It was called “Somebody’s Listening,” and every single word of that documentary is still valid today. In fact, it’s especially valid because it predicted the exact kind of spying scandal that we’re reading about in today’s news.
That was when I first met Phil Zimmerman. He called me shortly after that program aired and asked to meet for lunch. He told me he was a bit of a privacy nut and that “Somebody’s Listening” was good, but didn’t go far enough. Then he told me about PGP, which he hoped would someday protect the world against government eavesdropping. Sadly, it didn’t. It eventually elevated Phil to one of the most exalted positions in the Silicon Valley, but we’re still waiting for the protections he once hoped for. In the meantime, Big Brother is more evil that anything George Orwell envisioned in his epic “1984”.
Are these powers really the ones you want in the hands of your neighbors?