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Author: Dale A. Stirling
Title: Diffie Whitfield and Susan Landau's Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1999

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Source: Diffie Whitfield and Susan Landau's Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption
Dale A. Stirling

vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
Article Type: Book Review

Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption

Whitfield, Diffie and Landau, Susan. Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. 346 pp. Tables. Index. Cloth: $24.95 ISBN: 0-262-54100-9.

The concept of privacy is embodied in such things as our nation's constitution, certain federal, state, and local laws and, perhaps most importantly, in our own view of our place in a very public world. However, our concerns about privacy have become more heightened in recent years with the advent of the online world. The notion that our most important personal information, such as purchase patterns and financial accounts can be invaded and used by others is very disturbing. Yet, few of us understand that shadowy world that attempts to guarantee much of our privacyߞencryption. We are, however, now quite familiar with another privacy issueߞwiretapping. This issue came to the national forefront in the aftermath of Linda Tripp's recorded conversations, in violation of Maryland wiretap law, with Whitehouse intern Monica Lewinsky regarding her affair with the President Clinton. Fortunately, Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau have written an excellent overview of the world of wiretapping and encryption. This book is at once detailed but at the same time very readable and enlightening. It consists of three essential parts. One part of the book relates to the issue of encryption, one part of the book deals with the issue of wiretapping, and another part relates to the issues of national security, intelligence, law enforcement, communications, privacy issues of and their interrelationship to encryption and wiretapping. Throughout, the authors use examples of court cases and political events to amplify the issues facing legal and illegal uses of these two communication technologies.

A greater portion of the book deals with encryption because encryption has more history and involves greater technological changes than that of wiretapping. The authors provide a short history of the technology, tracing its roots to the renaissance, and tracking changes over time, including the work of America's codemakers and codebreakers in World War Two to the present as federal agencies, special interest groups, academics, and others debate computer security, digital signatures, and other concerns of the information age. The authors also discuss at length the legislation and federal agency involvement that has impacted the technology and use of encryption. They pay particular attention to recent events that are changing the use of encryption, including the recent National Institute of Standards & Technology adoption of the Escrowed Encryption Standard as a Federal Information Processing Standard. The author's coverage of wiretapping includes a history of the technology and how the technology has defined two groups of usersߞlaw enforcement, intelligence agencies, honest citizens, businesses, and criminals. I believe most of the public's knowledge of wiretapping is based on its portrayal by the popular media, particularly television. The author's discussion shows how much more is behind the technology and intent of wiretapping.

Perhaps the most sobering elements of this book are the chapters on privacy. The authors go beyond the issue of privacy in communications to discuss privacy in general and they make a convincing case for the privacy we've lost due to technological changes in computing and communications. The most chilling evidence of the power of privacy loss or its threatened loss is the author's discussion of domestic national security. The authors also go beyond the history to question the future of encryption and wiretapping.

Overall, this is a most engrossing book. Its not only provides a thorough overview of the history and technology of encryption and wiretapping, it analyzes how the technologies have, will, and may impact our daily lives. It also questions the authority of those who propose to protect us from our technological selves. Though this book could be a conspiracy theorists bedtime tome, its more than that. Diffie and Landau offer the evidence, make some balanced conclusions and, I believe, leave it to the reader to gauge their own risk and exposure to a loss of privacy due to encryption and wiretapping. This book belongs on recommended reading lists of those interested in communications, computing, privacy law, and technology change over time.

Dale A. Stirling ( is a historian and information specialist with the environmental and public health consulting firm of Intertox, Inc., in Seattle, Washington USA