504: Legal Hacks

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Legal Hacks
It's totally a reasonable modern analogue. Jefferson would have been all about crypto.
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 cryptography offers a way around such censorship.

Encryption, the study and use of which is known as "cryptography," or "crypto" for short ("crypto" in more recent years has tended to be short for "cryptocurrency", but not in this case), 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 very strong social and political movements opposing arms control in the United States. The legal basis for this movement is the position that most or all laws prohibiting private ownership of firearms (and potentially other weapons), violate the Second Amendment. Accordingly, publicly referring to the Second Amendment tends to imply opposition to gun control. Megan's implication is that, by connecting RSA to this debate, crypto enthusiasts would gain a large group of unlikely allies who are strongly committed to keeping weapons legal and unrestricted. They could also invoke the legal cover of the Constitution, allowing them to fight restrictions in court.

Cueball is surprised and impressed by this point, and pauses to contemplate Megan's strategy.

It should be noted that there are major weaknesses in this argument. The Second Amendment only applies in the United States, meaning that imports and exports of munitions could still be banned. It might provide some protections against the ability of the US government to restrict RSA within US borders, but it could still be restricted in other countries, potentially hampering its use in global communications.

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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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? ;) 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! -- 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 see the wording as "[Becauase of] 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." i.e. the first half explains why the second half (note that "well-regulated" to them meant "properly trained"). Wilh3lm (talk) 14:16, 1 December 2023 (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 ) -- 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. -- 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. -- 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)

Coming back to this in the modern day it's wild to me how 'crypto' has transformed from meaning 'cryptography' to meaning 'crypto(-graphically secured p2p)-currency'. 15:11, 10 September 2023 (UTC)