THE MAGAZINE

Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption

By Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau

***** Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption. By Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau. Published by The MIT Press, mitpress.mit.edu (Web); 472 pages; $90.00.

Originally published in 1998, this updated and expanded 2007 edition of Privacy on the Line provides an incredibly comprehensive insight into the world of encryption and wiretaps, its political machinations, legal aspects, technologies, vulnerabilities, costs, limitations, and near-ubiquity.

The book provides a thorough historical perspective on both topics, focusing on the legal history of government wiretaps, including 1978’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the dramatic increase in wiretap orders over the years. Also discussed are the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) and its allowance for “roving” wiretaps—wiretaps without a specific location—for use when the target uses different phones to elude surveillance. (The concept is now associated with 2001’s USA PATRIOT Act, which built on ECPA.)

In the case of encryption, Diffie and Landau accurately state that while some claim it has existed for centuries, it is actually a modern phenomenon. Encryption key escrow, and the related debate over whether critical U.S. government keys should ever be used overseas, is discussed at great length, as are the battles waged by the government and private business over the issue.

The book goes well beyond encryption and wiretaps to highlight corporate America’s reliance on the Internet and its vulnerability to attackers, foreign and domestic.

The authors are uniquely qualified to write on the subject. Whitfield Diffie astonished the encryption community in 1975 when he and a colleague introduced public key encryption, which obviates central key management by allowing anyone to encrypt a message using the intended recipient’s public key. The message, however, can only be decrypted with the recipient’s private key. Co-author Susan Landau, a distinguished engineer and mathematician, has worked on cryptography and taught at the university level.

Relatively free of technical jargon, the book is easy reading. Privacy on the Line could be read by anyone, but those with an interest in wiretapping and cryptography will find it particularly fascinating.


G. Ernest Govea, CPP, is the facility security officer and director of government security for Parsons in Pasadena, California, and has 32 years’ experience protecting classified information for the military and defense sectors. He is a member of ASIS.

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