# 504: Legal Hacks

 Legal Hacks Title text: It's totally a reasonable modern analogue. Jefferson would have been all about crypto.

## Explanation

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 fact that an early President was a fan of a technique is not very good legal evidence that the technique would be covered by a particular Amendment.

## Transcript

[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.

# Discussion

While RSA is mentioned as a cryptographic mechanism whose "munitions" status was fought over, yours truly considers the whole of PGP's fight (and its original 1st Amendment idea to get around the restrictions) as the archetype of this kind of export battle. Never did get me one of the alleged T-shirts with the souce-code printed on, that were supposed to be going around in 1991-ish, though...

So, anyway, that's something using the 1st Amendment, something using the 2nd Amendment... So how can we theoretically fight the issue via the right not to have soldiers quartered in one's home? ;) 178.107.63.150 23:39, 5 June 2013 (UTC)

Every time I see the 2nd Amendment in text... that one comma. That first comma doesn't belong. I think they were trying to write, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, will always have the right to bear arms" but then they got distracted or changed their mind and just forgot that the comma was there. I'm not usually that much of a grammar nazi, but that's the freaking Constitution! --69.211.56.17 22:41, 10 October 2013 (UTC)

I do admit that the wording would be clearer today, but that is a faulty argument here, for two reasons. First, It was written more than 200 years ago, almost 240, in fact. Unless you have a contemporary grammar, you have no right to be a grammar Nazi with the Constitution. Second, The Constitution was deliberately constructed to be vague, so it might last a little longer than the ten years predicted for it. (Talk about an underestimate) Anonymous 02:54, 4 December 2013 (UTC)

I still don't quite understand this comic. If crypto is classified as a weapon, then people in the USA are free to use it? Why would they not be free to use it today? What does (politicians'?) complacency have to do with all of this?

(On second thought, is this comic referring to the continued attempts of outlawing cryptography? e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30778424 ) --141.101.80.111 09:51, 15 January 2015 (UTC)

As it says in the comic, the encryption technique was originally classed as a weapon in order to make it illegal to export the technology to other countries. Controlling the use of encryption within the US was going to be difficult due to the First Amendment, but preventing other countries accessing the US developed technology was seen as the most important goal. See here for more detailed explanation. The comic definately addresses the ongoing legal status of encryption technology, but as far any link to Mr Camerons recently reported attacks on encryption, this comic was published in 2008, so no. -- Pudder (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Cameron's was just an example; the attacks have been going on for twenty years, and in most western countries.
Anyway, I'm quite aware of US embargoes, but the the right-to-bear-arms amendment doesn't apply to them. I'm still finding the last panel incomprehensible. (I don't mean to pick on you specifically, but) none of my questions have been answered. --141.101.80.111 11:07, 15 January 2015 (UTC)
After re-reading your comment and the comic, I think I understand where you are coming from. With encryption classed as a weapon, it cannot be exported, but may be used by citizens within the US. Once no longer classified as a weapon, it can still be used by citizens (i.e. nothing has changed as far as use by US citizens is concerned). The issue comes when if the government tries to prevent use of encryption; if classed as a weapon, you can use the "2nd amendment" defence. My guess on the complacency thing is that possibly politicians become complacent in believing that they have the power to 'control' encryption, and may deny use of it if they wanted. Classed as a weapon, suddenly the constitution stands in their way... Which would bring us back to 'outlawing encryption', though Mr Cameron and the UK in general would be another kettle of fish. Its a good question.--Pudder (talk) 13:07, 15 January 2015 (UTC)
Re: outlawing cryptography. Governments, including the US one, haven't liked encryption for a long while, as its use will make obtaining evidence much harder if not impossible. The recent talks have been about just outright outlawing it or otherwise weakening it to the point of irrelevance. See for example the clipper chip from 1993, which has a back door specifically built for law enforcement. See also various key disclosure laws.
But this might be irrelevant. I'm looking at this from a too modern angle; few of those laws existed in the 1990s, which is what the comic is referring to.
I think the explanation is missing Megan's point and its effects for the rest of the world; the course of action which she proposes affects the United States alone. And of course, as I've mentioned, I feel that the final panel is halfway unaccounted for in the explanation. --141.101.80.111 10:16, 16 January 2015 (UTC)

Does the freedom to speak not also include the freedom to speak privately? You don't HAVE to harbour government agents in your home in the USA do you?

I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 20:29, 30 January 2015 (UTC)