A broad approach is needed to combat terrorism

The best defense against terrorists exploiting IT tools like encryption software is to eliminate the root causes of terrorism, said Philip Zimmermann, the inventor of the Pretty Good Privacy encryption tool.

Using blunt force alone would be to treat the symptoms and not the cause. The world has entered the age of the "superempowered individual," said Zimmermann, borrowing the term from a discussion he heard on National Public Radio, and the key is taking a broad approach to dealing with individuals bent on destruction.

"It's like we're playing goalie in a deadly hockey game; we're not going to be able to stop all of them," Zimmermann said. "We could use blunt force and clear the ice. But I think we need to go out there and reduce the number of people with that frame of mind."

The defense must be in layers and operate along many different fronts, doing everything from strengthening cockpit doors to winning over the hearts and minds of nations and people who hate us, said Zimmermann. In this new age, he added, simple blunt force responses won't be effective.

The trouble with battling these superempowered individuals is that when a nation attacks a nation, the response is simple: strike back. But when an individual strikes, the response is much more complicated.

"All those fighters patrolling the skies are not going to stop the anthrax letters," Zimmermann said.

As the creator of the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software, Zimmermann has for years found himself in the middle of a debate about how much power individuals should have. More good, he has maintained, comes from giving individuals the power to send encrypted e-mails than would come from blocking a handful of zealots from exploiting the tool.

Zimmermann has likened PGP to the automobile in one analogy. When Bonnie and Clyde used the automobile to get away from the scenes of bank robberies and cross state and county lines, no one had ever done such a thing. The initial reaction among some law enforcement groups was to call for the banning of the private automobile. However, what changed were people's attitudes and laws; for instance, law enforcement was no longer blocked from pursuing suspects across state and county lines.

The same principal holds true with high-tech tools that empower many law-abiding people to protect their privacy for personal, business or political reasons.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Zimmermann said he has no regrets about making his PGP code widely available. He bristles at the idea that he feels guilty that terrorists or anyone else might have used his invention for nefarious purposes.

Zimmermann said he was shocked to see a story in The Washington Post suggesting that he felt responsible for giving terrorists a way to communicate with one another outside of government surveillance.

He went so far as to publish a response to the Post article on his Web site.

"In these emotional times, we in the crypto community find ourselves having to defend our technology from well-intentioned but misguided efforts by politicians to impose new regulations on the use of strong cryptography. I do not want to give ammunition to these efforts by appearing to cave in on my principles," Zimmermann wrote. "I think the article correctly showed that I'm not an ideologue when faced with a tragedy of this magnitude. Did I re-examine my principles in the wake of this tragedy? Of course I did. But the outcome of this re-examination was the same as it was during the years of public debate, that strong cryptography does more good for a democratic society than harm, even if it can be used by terrorists. Read my lips: I have no regrets about developing PGP."

He also said that the government hasn't contacted him to get his help in cracking his own code. Not that he could help even if he wanted to, he said, because there is no magic key that unlocks the code.

"If you design a system well, the designer will have no special knowledge to break these systems," Zimmermann said.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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