The telegraph, telephone, radio, and especially the computer
have put everyone on the globe within earshot— at the price of our
privacy. It may feel like we're performing an intimate act when,
sequestered in our rooms and cubicles, we casually use our cell
phones and computers to transmit our thoughts, confidences,
business plans, and even our money. But clever eavesdroppers, and
sometimes even not-so-clever ones, can hear it all. We think we're
whispering, but we're really broadcasting.
A potential antidote exists: cryptography, the use of secret
codes and ciphers to scramble information so that it's worthless to
anyone but the intended recipients. And it's through the magic of
cryptography that many communications conventions of the real
world — such as signatures, contracts, receipts, and even poker
games — will find their way to the ubiquitous electronic commons.
But as recently as the early 1970s, a deafening silence prevailed
over this amazing technology. Governments, particularly that of the
United States, managed to stifle open discussion on any aspect of
the subject that ventured beyond schoolboy science. Anyone who
pursued the fundamental issues about crypto, or, worse, attempted
to create new codes or crack old ones, was doomed to a solitary
quest that typically led to closed doors, suddenly terminated phone
connections, or even subtle warnings to think about something else.