Will Cyber Criminals Run The World?

World dominance isn't so easily won, but that hasn't stopped the spies and the nerds from waging a bitter war over encryption technology

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But piracy only looks like the free-and-easy island life. It's actually hard work, because it lacks efficient economies of scale. Once you start seriously churning out the product, you quickly become very visible: warehouses, trucks, employee payrolls--it all adds up. The sweet charm of piracy is free, daring little "us" vs. big nasty "them." But any "us" that gets large enough is automatically a "them." Bill Gates was once a hippie programmer, a college dropout from Seattle. But a hippie with a billion dollars is no longer a hippie; he's a billionaire. A hippie with $50 billion is considered a trust.

It's not that a cybercriminal world of conspiratorial smugglers, scofflaws, crooked banks and tax evaders is impossible. Such countries already exist. It's just that they're not anyone's idea of high-tech paradise. They are places like Bulgaria.

It's amazing how clunky and unproductive an economy becomes once its people despise and subvert all its big institutions. Members of the Russian mafia don't shoot people because they like to. They shoot them because in Russia these days a bullet is the quickest way to get things accomplished. In such places, industrial consumerism just curls up and vanishes. Black markets take its place; there are no more fast-food chains, so everybody eats lunch out of the trunk of a car.

If everything on the Net was encrypted and belonged to small groups of with-it hipsters, you would never find a bargain there. You would never find much of anything. You'd have to wait till some hacker in the know was willing to give you the power handshake and turn you on to the cool stuff. That might not cost very much, but it doesn't feel very free.

It has taken some anxious years of real-world experience for people to figure out that crypto turned loose in cyberspace will not make the world blow up. Crypto's more or less around and available now, and no, it's not an explosive munition. The threats were overblown, much like Y2K. The rhetoric of all sides has been crazily provocative.

One expects that of fringe people in Berkeley. The U.S. government, on the other hand, should have been fairer and more honest. The crypto issue, which is still smoldering and poisoning the atmosphere, could have been settled sensibly long ago. We would have found out that some small forms of crypto were useful and practical and that most of the visionary stuff was utter hogwash. It would have shaken out in a welter of disillusionment, just as Flower Power did. But we never got to that point, thanks mostly to the obstreperous attitudes of the anti-crypto forces, who are basically spies.

The FBI does most of the upfront p.r. in the anti-crypto effort. The FBI doesn't like the prospect of losing some wiretaps. That's just the FBI; it would say the same thing about telepathy if it had it. The true secret mavens of crypto are at the NSA. Spy-code breakers such as Alan Turing invented electronic computers in the first place, so the NSA has a long-held hegemony here. The NSA sets the U.S. government's agenda on crypto, and it will not fairly or openly debate this subject, ever.

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