Over the last year, law enforcement officials around the world have been pressing hard on the notion that without a magical “backdoor” to access the content of any and all encrypted communications by ordinary people, they’ll be totally incapable of fulfilling their duties to investigate crime and protect the public. EFF and many others have pushed back—including launching a petition with our friends to SaveCrypto, which this week reached 100,000 signatures, forcing a response from President Obama.

This is in addition to multiple findings that the government’s “going dark” concern has proven completely unfounded in the past, along with former national security officers disavowing the concern all together. And given law enforcement’s continuing attacks on the public’s use of encryption, we think it’s time for a quick look at the long tradition of encryption use by some ordinary, and some not so ordinary, Americans.

Of course most folks know that cryptography is a critical military tool. In one of NSA’s own published histories [pdf] of cryptology, the government touts its significance, and many folks believe, reasonably, that cryptography played a significant role in the Allies winning WWII. But law enforcement officials have recently made clear that they believe the government—and only the government—should benefit from the routine use of the most secure encryption technologies. And they are currently endeavoring to restrict the widespread use of secure encryption technologies by the public.

But cryptography has always been far more than just a military or government tool. Government officials were never the only ones spending time and resources using and developing new encryption techniques. Indeed, far from being something that has been employed only by reigning officials, encryption has been used by civilians, businesspeople, and revolutionaries—including the Founding Fathers of the United States—for centuries.

One of the earliest (and still unsolved) known encrypted works is the Voynich manuscript, an illustrated codex that has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century. And the first known English-language book on cryptology was published in 1641, entitled Mercury, or The Secret and Swift Messenger by John Wilkins. By the 1800s, knowledge of various ways to conceal the contents of a message was widespread—and many ordinary individuals used cryptology for everything from business communications to love letters.

We’ve noted in previous posts how the Founding Fathers were big users of encryption. You have probably heard of the codes employed by Paul Revere—his “one if by land, two if by sea” lanterns and the warning disseminated during his midnight ride that “the Regulars [were] coming out,” alerting the colonial militia to the approach of British forces before the battles of Lexington and Concord. But the leaders of the young country used not only codes and signals but also ciphers and other techniques to preserve the confidentiality of their communications should a dispatch fall into the hands of the enemy.

As one law review piece published during the first crypto wars noted, “secret communication methods” were widely used in England in the 17th   and 18th centuries and “[f]rom the beginnings of the American Revolution in 1775 until the adoption of the United States Constitution, Americans used codes, ciphers and other secret writings to foment, support, and carry to completion a rebellion against the British government.” The article includes numerous examples of civilians, businesspeople, and revolutionaries using encryption to secure the contents of their communications. And no one questioned their right to do so—no matter the context or rationale behind their use of encryption.

One example is the Continental Congress, which recognized the need for secrecy and passed a resolution ordering the use ciphers for all messages that could not otherwise be safely transmitted. And many of the individual founding fathers you likely learned about in grade school used encryption to secure their personal communications:

  • 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.

The list goes on.

Our founding fathers were not using encryption as reigning governing officials. They were revolutionaries and activists. They were using encryption as a tool to fight for freedom from a repressive governing body and to protect their correspondence from government snooping. And it is well documented that many of them used encryption to protect the secrecy of not only their work-related communications during the revolution, but also their personal letters throughout their lives.

And lots of other folks entirely outside of the government also used codebooks and other forms of early cryptographic technology to protect their business and personal communications—especially communications sent via mail or telegram—since the founding of the United States. Yet, before 1960, there is no evidence that the federal government believed it should exercise its powers to restrict the use of encryption technology by private citizens.

Any suggestion by government officials that encryption is a tool that, until now, has been in the exclusive province of the government is a misconception that furthers an anti-privacy and anti-security agenda. Encryption is—and has always been—a tool for everyone, researched and deployed by people from all walks of life for many purposes, from concealing the contents of private love letters to protecting stock market trades, diplomacy, or political activism. And given the routine security breaches and rampant government surveillance we face today, ensuring the privacy and security of our private communications is as important now as ever—or even more so.

Please join us in acting to SaveCrypto and urge President Obama to commit to supporting strong cryptography for everyone.


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