504: Legal Hacks
Title text: It's totally a reasonable modern analogue. Jefferson would have been all about crypto.
Megan notices that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is blocking access to some webpages. Cueball is thankful that cryptology offers a way around such censorship. Encryption, sometimes called "cryptography," or "crypto" for short, is the art of transmitting messages that can only be read by the intended receiver(s) by using mathematical techniques to systematically re-arrange the data in the message. For example, if each letter of the alphabet has a number assigned to it (A = 1, B = 2, C = 3), and so on, and the person receiving your message already knows a nice long, hard-to-guess number (say, the exact latitude-and-longitude coordinates of the treehouse you used to play in as kids), then you can 'rotate' or 'shuffle' each of the letters in your message by the digits of your hard-to-guess number so that only someone who knows that number will be able to decode the message.
One popular and effective way to encrypt messages is called "RSA," after the last initials of the three cryptographers who invented it. The RSA technique relies on the fact that it is much easier to multiply two medium-sized numbers together than it is to factor a large number back into two medium numbers. For example, given the numbers 13 and 17, most middle schoolers can figure out that 13 * 17 = 221, but given only the number 253, it is much harder to figure out what numbers can be multiplied together to arrive there. This principle holds (and intensifies) as numbers get larger, so that a number with 600 digits (or a phrase with 400 letters) can be used to make a code virtually unbreakable with present technology.
Being able to share unbreakable codes and decrypt other people's codes gives countries a military advantage - for example, in World War II, the Americans and British were often able to figure out where a German attack would be coming and send reinforcements there, because they had cracked the German codes. Because of this, the United States government initially tried to keep the mathematical details of the RSA technique inside the country by classifying the techniques as a weapon. It is a crime to share certain kinds of weapons technology with other countries without permission. Amateur and professional cryptographers, angry about the attempt to restrict their work, lobbied the government to change the rule and stop treating cryptography as a weapon, in part so that they could continue to collaborate with colleagues overseas, and in part because they wanted the ability to pass secret messages that the government could not easily decrypt.
In the comic, Megan makes the provocative and counter-intuitive point that perhaps the cryptographic community could have best ensured easy access to the RSA technique by *allowing* the government to treat RSA as a weapon, and then, once everyone is certain that RSA is a weapon, invoking the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." In other words, if RSA were a weapon, perhaps the government would be powerless to stop ordinary people from 'bearing,' i.e., obtaining and using, that weapon.
Cueball is surprised and impressed by this point, and pauses to contemplate Megan's strategy.
The title text claims that this is a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, because cryptography (a modern weapon) is analogous to muskets and cannons (the weaponry in use in the 1780s, when the Second Amendment was drafted). As evidence for the analogy, the title text points out that Jefferson would have been a big fan of cryptography, which is plausible, because President Thomas Jefferson (the 3rd President of the United States) was an amateur scientist who enjoyed studying a very wide variety of fields (in fact, he invented the Jefferson disk , an encryption device that was quite advanced for its time). The point is somewhat facetious, because it is hard to imagine a modern technique that Jefferson would *not* "be totally into." Also, the mere assertion that an early President would have been a fan of a technique is not very good evidence that the technique would be legally permitted by a particular Amendment.
- [Megan sits at her computer, Cueball standing behind her.]
- Megan: Another ISP's filtering content.
- Cueball: Thank God for Crypto.
- [Cueball stands alone; Megan is presumably off-panel left.]
- Cueball: It wasn't that long ago that RSA was illegal to export. Classified a munition.
- [Megan, sitting in her chair, is looking back towards Cueball, presumably off-panel right.]
- Megan: You know, I think the crypto community took the wrong side in that fight. We should've lobbied to keep it counted as a weapon.
- Cueball: Why?
- [She is now turned around in the chair looking at Cueball, who is in-panel again.]
- Megan: Once they get complacent, we break out the second amendment.
- [Cueball has his hand on his chin, contemplatively.]
- Cueball: ...Damn.
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