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.