Boston Sunday Globe, 8 October, 1995, pp 91,97


In pursuit of privacy they break codes, fault government plans

By Jon Auerbach

Carl Ellison is 51, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a regular churchgoer and an accomplished baritone in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus.

Carl Ellison is also a Cypherpunk.

Which means, in rough terms, that he's an electronic crusader, a computer whiz driven by a conviction that Americans need protection from a federal government bent on developing the tools to spy on its own citizens.

Generally seen as an esoteric cabal of ultraintelligent, anarchistic computer hackers, the Cypherpunks are feared by law enforcement and government officials, admired by many civil rights groups, and, until recently, hardly known by anyone else.

The nationwide group burst onto the world stage last month when two of its members demonstrated how easy it would be to steal credit card numbers sent over the global computer network known as the Internet. That revelation rattled consumers, and shook the entire industry of computer companies, retail outfits and communications firms that have a stake in making cyberspace a place where money can change hands safely.

"The Cypherpunks are going to be the most important factor in determining whether the Internet succeeds or fails" as a commercial medium, said Paul Callahan, director of network research at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge. "They are the ones advancing the ball."

Defining just what the Cypherpunks are is about as difficult as understanding the highly technical world in which they operate.

Officially, they are an Internet "news group," a forum where people "with common interests can swap information and ideas via computer. The Cypherpunks forum is open to the public and currently has about 1,000 members.

The glue that holds the Cypherpunks together is an arcane mathematics field known as cryptography that involves the coding of messages to make them secret. The goal of the Cypherpunks is to develop cryptography that is so secure that absolutely no one - not even the government - would be able decode an electronic message.

"We have privacy in the real world," explained Ellison, who works as a computer security specialist in Glenwood, Md. "And in cyberspace, to achieve privacy, you need to have cryptography."

Some Cypherpunks are quick to point out that the group is not a group at all. When one member recently posted a message to the group's bulletin board recommending electing a spokesman, Timothy C. May, a Cypherpunk founder, shot back: "Anarchy is part of our charm. There is no one out there who speaks for me."

To be sure, there are many types of Cypherpunks. Some, like Ellison, eschew hard-edged rhetoric, choosing instead to focus on mathematical and computer-related issues.

Kathleen Ellis, a 20-year-old psychology major at Towson State University in Maryland, said she joined the group because she's fascinated by the Cypherpunks' politics. Like Ellis, many are casual observers who rarely join group discussions.

But the anarchistic view of the (many Cypherbunks are avid libertarians) is the backbone of the group's original mission, and continues to guide many of its most active members.

"They see things in terms of Orwell's '1984,' except that they believe that vision is really happening right now," said Larry Detweiler, a Cypherpunk who is also one of the group's most vocal critics. "They hate formality, organization and anything official."

That mistrust of authority, combined with the Cypherpunks' intelligence and commitment to developing a totally secure code, sends shivers down the US government's collective spine.

Why? Under current law, a government official with a search warrant has the right to tap a phone, watch private e-mail and place bugs in homes and offices. But the kind of cryptography the Cypherpunks advocate would render that right meaningless. Able to pick up only indecipherable gibberish, bugs and taps would be useless. Jim Kaliston, the assistant director in charge of the field division of the FBI's New York office, believes such a prospect would allow criminals to operate with virtual impunity.

"Imagine that I've got a search warrant on some terrorist who's about to blow up an airplane," he said. "The warrant should allow me to save lives of those passengers, but [with this kind of cryptography] I can't get any information because it's totally protected by technology.

"You know what happens? Poof, the plane blows up."

Ellison recognizes that threat, but believes privacy for the masses is ultimately more important. "I'm, saying to the world that criminals have rights, because I need those rights, too," he said.

Besides, Ellison continued, if the government had the means to eavesdrop on electronic communications, the potential for abuse would be enormous. "Another J. Edgar Hoover could pop up sometime in the future," he said, alluding to the former FBI director and his reported abuses of power.

The Cypherpunks are not only worried about the government spying on electronic messages. With the recent explosion in goods and services being sold the Internet, the group has focused its efforts on illuminating the security risks of the electronic world.

The target of its recent barrage has been Netscape Communications Corp., which makes a popular program that allows computer users to browse the World Wide Web, a Colorful and easy-to-use section of the Internet.

On Sept. 17, Ian Goldberg and David Wagner, both graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley, said they had cracked Netseape's security code. Had the pair had malicious intent, they could have collected everything from credit card numbers to more personal information.

Callahan, of Forrester, praises ithe Cypherpunks for this vigilante function. By pointing out security gaps, he said, they are showing Internet users "not to be deluded anymore into thinking something is safe when it's not." Callahan believes this will promote better security in the future.

"In the real world, you hire Pinkerton guards and put locks on the doors and after hours you have somebody strolling around with a walkie-talkie," he said. "These guys are trying to do the same thing for the Internet."

Kallston, of the FBI, believes good encryption is vital for the Internet, but he believes for public safety reasons, the government must have access to the codes.

"We're not trying to stop technology," Kallston said. "We're trying to collect information on criminals and terrorists and child pornographers."