By Todd Krieger
Illustration by Brook Power
This story originally appeared in ISSUE1. Click here to buy the print edition


To say Phil Zimmermann is an interesting guy is a bit of an understatement. He’s a passionate (and humble) man who not only understood the privacy ramifications of our digital communications age early on but sought to provide the everyman with a bulwark against the burgeoning surveillance state by creating and making available PGP or “Pretty Good Privacy.” 

For those too young to remember, Zimmermann’s name and PGP made him internationally famous when the personal encryption program he wrote became a hot-button issue after he made it publicly available in 1991.

Customs officials came to Zimmermann’s house in 1993 in what would be the beginning of a Kafkaesque 3-year-battle with the government regarding the opacity of the government’s arguments and the crimes Zimmermann was defending himself against.  One facet of the charges was that digital exportation of PGP was defined as a felony, whereas printing out and mailing the same information was not. Additionally, the international export of PGP was deemed as “the illegal export of a munitions without a license” even though cryptography of a similar ilk had been in the public domain for many years. 

Phil’s earliest tangles with the US Government were defended by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the ACLU, and together they made an alliance.  With the dawn of the commercial Internet in the mid-’90s Phil presciently understood the potentially deleterious effect of the digitization of communication; as this digital world was being shaped, Phil and his cohort played a leading role in defense of privacy, and we are still reaping the benefits of their efforts today. 

For this inaugural issue of Animals I had the opportunity to chat with Phil while he was visiting Washington, DC. He currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland, where he runs his encrypted telephony business Silent Circle. 

What follows is a portion our conversation touching on where we’ve been, where we’ve gone, and where we’re headed, and the delicate balance between privacy, security, freedom, and the social contract between a citizen and their government. 

As a side note, I had written a piece about Phil when the PGP imbroglio first came to the fore back in the early 1990s. At the time Internet was much younger, and while the acts of the United States v. Zimmermann in the 90’s might at the time have felt like overreach, they pale in comparison to our post 9/11 world and the invasive tactics of both the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act and NSA surveillance.

It was in today’s climate wherein companies like Verizon and Yahoo! collaborating with the governments around the world to spy on their own citizens that I began the conversation. And spoiler alert: throughout the call the phone would crackle a little (partly due to my location to be sure) and at the end of the call I asked if we were on an encrypted line, to which Phil said, ‘”Yes. My end of the call is encrypted.” 

Animals: As you look at the world we live in, even for a person with as long and as intimate understanding of global surveillance, what do you think about where we’ve arrived?

Phil Zimmermann: I talked about a lot of this stuff but I never imagined it would be so breathtaking in its scope. What we’ve seen in certain revelations. Those of us who try to talk about the future of surveillance and access to surveillance, we would never have been to be able to warn against this because we would have been seen as lunatics. 

Every aspect one could control is controlled. There are thousands of mathematicians looking at every opportunity they can find and exploiting them. They own the routers, they clone the routers.

Animals: Do some of the US’s actions have to do with why you live in Geneva? 

PZ: I split my time [between Europe and the US]. I’m in the US (as of right now). Also: Switzerland has a constitution that guarantees a right to privacy – so it seemed like a good place to put a company.

Animals: Tell us a bit about your company and how it came to be. 

PZ: I started Silent Circle along with (former Navy Seal) Mike Janke. I had been working for some years on secure telephony. I’ve really been at that side of the business even longer than PGP . I wanted to do secure telephony before secure email. 

But back then nobody had broadband. There were no standards for Internet telephony. And why would anybody buy that product? I worked on secure email first. Secure calls are much more interesting.

I even had a PGP phone back 1995. The first version used a modem. It was modem-to-modem communication. I knew it wasn’t going to sell.  There would be no way to get a network effect.

Interestingly, some of Silent Circle’s earliest customers have been the US Defense Department, who have purchased Silent Circle’s highly configurable “blackphones” for their employees. Silent Circle’s Android-based offering has none of the black doors the FBI has asked communications providers to have to allow for spying, ostensibly to counter terrorism and other criminal activities.  It is the breadth of the state powers that led to a degree to Phil’s moving more quickly firing up his vision of a secure phone company. 

The phone became possible when the infrastructure was in place. I worked on it after 9/11, the technology was there, but I felt that the government had their hands full so I figured I would wait a while longer. 

I got involved in the Roundtable and Commission on Scientific Communication and National Security, it was a joint project to make policy recommendations. At the time scientific conferences and scientific papers were being stifled. It was difficult to get visas—papers were being censored. We were supposed to review policy and make recommendations. Members of the committee included then Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Director of Central Intelligence Bobby Ray Inman, and there was another guy from the US Justice Department, Viet Dinh. 

Viet D. Dinh was the chief architect of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. He worked under W. and I asked him why, in 2003, did the Justice department teach seminars to prosecute all manner of crime?  The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act was passed to fight terrorism. Dinh’s answer was, “Crime is crime.” 

I felt the P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act was a social contract between society and congress. You give up some of your freedoms in exchange for feeling safe. 

Dinh in his answer was very clear. He said the P.A.T.R.I.O.T act was something we wanted to pass for a long time, but we never had the political will to do it until 9/11. When it was said directly to my face, that confirmed some of my worst fears about privacy invasion.

Furthermore, it was at that moment I decided to no longer sit around and get moving on secure telephony and that became the Zfone (software for secure voice communication over the Internet, or “VoIP,” using the ZRTP protocol.)

Animals: What do you make of the world of social media since people are giving up so much of their personal information and signing away privacy rights?

PZ: People willingly give up their privacy without realizing it. Facebook’s business model is to get as much information as they can, then they pretend when they change their default settings they didn’t mean to. 

Animals: Having felt the wrath of the government with them showing up on your doorstep, what do you think of those days when you were under such scrutiny by G-men?

PZ: Well I’m older now, and gained weight. I was a peace activist in jail with Martin Sheen and Carl Sagan for Civil Disobedience.  During the crypto wars we were successful. It’s hard to raise consciousness or have any kind of political movement these days.

Animals: What of Edward Snowden, has he helped to raise consciousness?

Snowden was very effective in making everyone aware. And to that extent it makes it easier to try and bring about public policy change. At the same time Snowden released too much, with respect to the NSA’s legitimate mission.

I think one of the reasons so many have come forward in the last 6 to 7 years is their work is troubling to their moral sensibilities. They kind of serve as “canaries in the coal mine.” 

Animals: What advice, tactically or philosophically would you give to people today with respect to their privacy and digital communications?

Tactically: they should be using encryption, like you do when you’re doing your online betting. Use encryption. You should encrypt your laptop. The whole disk drive should be encrypted. You should use encrypted phones.

I’ve tried to get people to resist the natural tendency to gradual change. As the rising tide of surveillance washes over us don’t let us acquiesce due to gradualism. I’ve done a lot of travel in Eastern Europe where there is rampant corruption. The citizens become cynical and corruption thrives where everyone is cynical by default, [almost like the Soviet-era under Communism]. This cynicism works as a fertile soil for corruption to thrive and pervasive surveillance lowers the expectation of privacy. As a result, it lowers overall expectations. 

We should expect not to have our faces on cameras in cities.

We should expect to not have our conversations tracked.

If we accept this — we are enabling surveillance.