Historian detective work: tracking down "crypto wars"
Like half my twitter timeline, I've set up a mastodon account as insurance against a sudden collapse of the birdsite. You can find me at https://mastodon.social/@jillianefoley
The term "Crypto Wars" gets used these days to describe the repeated attempts by the government to control various aspects of consumer encryption and the inevitable strong pushback by activists, researchers, and sometimes industry. Nerds (especially those who participated in one or more of them) will sometimes enumerate the Crypto Wars like old grizzled veterans talking about Normandy:
Prior to the 1990’s, it wasn’t an all out war. Crypto wasn’t very important outside government until the digital era. So Crypto War I was 1990’s Clipper/Export-Control. 2000-2010 was a time of peace. Crypto War II was ~2010-2015, relapse of Crypto War I. III is client scanning.— matt blaze (@mattblaze) October 7, 2021
I know of at least one person who counts Crypto War I as far back as the 60s, when the NSA tried to block the publication of David Kahn's bestselling history of cryptography The Codebreakers. (Fun fact: that first edition didn't even cover the German Enigma machine, or much else about WWII; it was all still top secret!) Some people start in the 70s--I probably would, if forced to enumerate--when the NSA tried to stop academics from researching crypto.
The original "Crypto War" was fought over the 1993 Clipper chip and accompanying standard requiring government escrow of encryption keys--a deeply unpopular move that failed to catch on. Clipper is when the phrase first showed up. But where, exactly? I realized this week that I didn't know.
I tried googling, naturally. I learned it is deeply stupid to put the word "coined" anywhere near the word "crypto" and expect to get anything useful. Replacing it with "origin" didn't get me anywhere, either. It seemed like nobody had ever gone looking, which felt impossible, so I asked on twitter. My tweets were pretty much buried even before the Elon $8 fiasco, so I didn't hold my breath.
I checked Google Ngrams next, to confirm my assumption the phrase first pops up in the mid-90s:
I knew tech writer Steven Levy's 1994 New York Magazine article about the Clipper debates used the phrase "crypto war," but it wasn't in his 1993 Wired profile of the cypherpunks, one of the activist groups that opposed Clipper. Levy definitely used warlike language in that earlier piece, comparing the cypherpunks to Skywalker's rebels fighting a "war" against the US government's Galactic Empire, but he didn't use the specific phrase "crypto war." And although there's an oblique reference to what became known as Clipper in the Wired piece, it hadn't been officially announced yet.
So it seemed likely the phrase showed up between February 1993 and June 1994. Using that window, I searched the ProQuest historical newspaper database. I had to weed out a few hits from the 1980s, when a couple of editorials used the term "crypto-war" to refer to Reagan's covert funding of the Contras in the Nicaraguan civil war--an interesting overlap, but clearly not what I was looking for.
ProQuest found Levy's New York Times Magazine piece, a slightly earlier one from Levy in Newsweek from April 1994 ("The Encryption Wars") and one additional hit from February 1994: a Village Voice profile of--you guessed it--the cypherpunks. An accompanying short inset article was titled "Tale from the Crypto Wars," but was actually about Navajo speakers and their fraught relationship with the US military, not about the encryption debates directly. The author Julian Dibbell, who wrote both the inset and the profile, references the cypherpunks in arguing that universal cryptography could help our society "finally take the ideal of diversity seriously." How has that worked out for us, hmm?
Anyway, the longer profile uses the phrase "crypto wars" too, and in a much more prescient way:
The crypto wars won't end when the Clipper debate does, and as they rage across the culture their shape will change with that of the underlying terrain. For instance, as the personal data of consumers becomes more and more valuable to information-hungry businesses, corporate America will become an increasingly unreliable friend to any technology that hides that data.
Of course, it's possible the term originated outside of journalism. The likeliest other origin would probably be an early online forum, like the cypherpunk mailing list or the Usenet sci.crypt list--but I haven't seen the phrase show up there any earlier. Then again, it's chaos in there, so I admit I might be missing something.
For now, I'll pin the origin of the phrase as it's used today to Julian Dibbell in the Village Voice, in 1994, along with some bonus points for a remarkably accurate prediction of The Discourse. Think I'm wrong? I'd love to hear!
Lately I've been reading up on two masterclasses in how not to run a business:
I highly recommend you do the same. It's a balm for the imposter syndrome soul.
This week I'll be volunteering a bit at the History of Science Society conference here in Chicago. It's not my favorite conference--that would be the history of technology conference I couldn't make, last weekend in New Orleans 😭--but it's a good chance to check in with colleagues and show my face. Will you be there? Say hi!