Civilian Ownership of Cryptography

[Page last modified: October 27, 1995]

Some people believe that cryptography was government property until the public key revolution in the 1970s. To the contrary, a careful reading of David Kahn's ``The Codebreakers'' (Macmillan, 1967) shows that cryptography was invented over 3000 years ago by civilians, and that it has been dual-source and dual-use for its entire history. However, there are some differences between the civilian and government histories: The government lead in cryptanalysis is partly because governments have traditionally been the only ones in a position to intercept communications and one needs intercepts in order to do cryptanalysis; partly because civilian inventors typically prefer to spend their time admiring the cleverness of their cryptosystem designs rather than trying to break them.

Academic (civilian) cryptology has started to include some decent cryptanalysis -- not to read intercepted traffic but to find strengths and weaknesses of new invented systems -- but it is likely that governments will continue to lead in this area. The need to read the messages of a shooting enemy gives a drive which academics will never feel. In addition, academic results are published and therefore added to the secret body of techniques available to the government analysts.

In spite of this long history with civilians inventing new systems and governments learning how to break them, at least the US government is now expressing public shock over the prospect of civilians' having access to strong cryptography. Apparently we civilians are supposed to to end an almost 4 millenium tradition and stop inventing, publishing and using cryptography as strong as we can make it.

Back to the previous page (``Attempt versus Succeed'').
Carl Ellison ---