504: Legal Hacks
Title text: It's totally a reasonable modern analogue. Jefferson would have been all about crypto.
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 conceal ("encrypt") the data in the message. One common and effective way to encrypt messages is the RSA algorithm, which is based on the difficulty of integer factorization for products of two prime numbers.
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 strong encryption algorithms (including RSA) inside the country by classifying the algorithms 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. The export restrictions were gradually loosened and would have mostly been lifted by the year 2000.
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, commonly known as the "right to bear arms" amendment (that is, the right to own and use weapons). In other words, if RSA were a weapon, it would be granted constitutional protections. This interpretation is likely a reference to the exceptionally strong antipathy towards arms control in the Southern United States (and not a whole lot weaker in most areas of the Northern and Western states). Any attempts made by the government to restrict distribution or ownership of firearms (even those which are very similar to military-grade weapons) are typically countered very aggressive opposition from pro-gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association. These political forces have made most gun restrictions politically untenable. Megan is likely suggesting that classifying RSA as a weapon would gain the crypto community very powerful and unlikely political allies; on the flip side, if the government had already ruled it a weapon that needed to be restricted for national security purposes, it could easily invoke the same clauses that allows it to restrict actual military-grade hardware such as automatic weapons, explosives and chemical or biological weapons). Megan may also be hinting that, in the future, the US government might try to restrict access to encryption algorithms, making it necessary for cryptographers to defend their rights to them.
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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