Privacy Trailblazer Thinks Telecom Companies Shouldn’t Be So Cozy With the Government

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 12 2014 10:48 AM

Privacy Trailblazer Thinks Telecom Companies Shouldn’t Be So Cozy With the Government

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Telecom companies need to get off the phone with the government.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The telecom industry certainly deals with the government a lot. Internet providers don’t want to be classified as utilities, the FTC is evaluating the Comcast-Time Warner acquisition, and the two groups seem to trade favors whenever it’s convenient. But Phil Zimmermann, who created Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption, says that telecom companies are too close to governments—not just in the United States—and that things should be different.

Zimmermann is a co-founder of the encrypted communication company Silent Circle. At the security conference Defcon this weekend he spoke about government surveillance, and gave some context for times when humans have grappled with similar questions. For example, in the 1990s, Zimmermann opposed government proposals to plant backdoors in encryption techniques like PGP as standard practice. And according to the Register, in his Defcon speech, Zimmermann even likened surveillance to slavery and absolute monarchy as an extreme practice that society can transcend.

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The National Institute of Standards—the government agency in charge of determining scientific and technical standards—is attempting to repair its image in the wake of revelations about NSA backdoors in federal encryption standards. But Zimmermann says that it’s time for telecom companies to go their own way. Largely in protest of the agency’s past involvement with the NSA, Silent Circle no longer relies primarily on NIST-approved algorithms as the encryption default (though customers can still select them).

Additionally, Ars Technica reports that Silent Circle is currently working with Dutch carrier KPN to provide encrypted voice calling in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Zimmermann hopes that there is growing interest in providing customers with privacy rather than creating insecurity through government relationships.

“Phone companies around the world have created a culture around themselves that is very cooperative with governments in invading people’s privacy. And these phone companies tend to think that there’s no other way—that they can’t break from this culture,” he said, according to Ars.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

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