Review on Whitfield Diffie

Whitfield Diffie, more interested in the word freedom than in the word privacy, began his talk by remembering how it all began.

There was a time when everyone had to share the same computer, everyone's files where stored in a single central location, and a single individual, the system administrator, had unlimited access to all of them. To avoid being left at the mercy of sysadmins, Diffie and others began their quest to reduce the amount of trust placed on other parties. The potential nightmare was that a central computer somewhere that everyone had to use would be surveilled by the police. Their quest led to the invention of Public Key Cryptography, at a time when few things related to cryptography were out in the open.

Then something happened: computing power became more accesible and many more people began owning their own computer. And for years the trend was to develop increasingly powerful personal computers, with the result that your data now didn't have to be stored in a central location. This brought a certain degree of freedom.

But now, the situation is coming full circle. With the appeareance of high bandwidth networks it now makes business sense to deploy terminals with limited storage and limited computing power linked to a central dedicated server, just like the old time-sharing systems. To add insult to injury, the trend towards outsorcing nearly everything (e-mail, computers, security, and even storage) has augmented the amount of trust, placed on other parties. This and other new trends in technology have increased the potential for automated spying and censorship, among other evils.

So how do we keep our freedom? Diffie suggested that besides trying all technical means available to us, we also need to emphasize the power of social pressure. We need to pay attention to bills before they become law, we need to pay attention to labor issues -- are telecommuters' homes going to become extensions of corporations? -- and we need to pay attention to the power that comes from organizing together. It is a remarkable message from one of the pioneers of cryptography.