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A "Tom Clancy" thriller lends support to the foes of encryption.

If the world were a Tom Clancy novel, I'd know just what to think of, a techno-thriller published late last year that was "created," if not actually written, by the famous author. I'd have to conclude that such a committee-written, book-like product had been designed by nefarious operatives in the corridors of power to bolster our government's current policy of trying to slow the spread of encryption technology - that is, an individual's ability to encode communications and data so securely that no one else, including the government, can read them

From a Clancyworld perspective - a perspective I know well, having maintained a secret Clancy habit during the last 15 years - there's lots of evidence that, nominally based on a computer game of the same name, is more propaganda piece than novel. Take this passage from the back cover copy: "Encryption technology keeps the codes for the world's security and communications systems top secret. The profit potential is huge - but deregulating this state-of-the-art technology for export could put a back-door key in the front pocket of spies and terrorists around the world."

Whoa! It's true that the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to argue that restricting export of encryption products, such as Phil Zimmerman's Pretty Good Privacy software, is necessary to keep terrorists and criminals from thwarting government wiretaps and other surveillance measures.

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that such an argument is not particularly convincing, relevant, or to the point. The claim that export somehow will lead to compromised encryption technology is a new notion - and one that's frequently repeated, yet never explained, throughout

It's also flatly bogus: Even if it were true that a terrorist with any encryption software product in his hands could figure out a way to install "a back-door key," there's no way he could install it in everybody else's copies of the software. Nor does exporting the product make it any easier to crack it; there's nothing magical about our national borders that makes encryption software weaker or less secure when it's exported. Yet this claim is made several times and presented as if it were obviously true. Repetition of false claims until they're accepted as true: In Clancyworld as in our own, that's a classic propaganda technique.

What makes the anti-encryption propaganda in Ruthless. com even more effective is that it's labeled with Tom Clancy's name. Rightly or wrongly, Clancy's longstanding appeal is grounded in the perception that he's technically accurate when describing military hardware and other techno-wizard gimcrackery. When Clancy exploded on the book scene in the 1980s with The Hunt for Red October, a thriller about a Soviet nuclear submarine whose captain wants to defect, the book was praised in the highest military and policy circles for the author's grasp both of military technology and of the ways soldiers, spies, and politicians think about the technology. President Ronald Reagan even went so far as to declare the book a "perfect yarn."

Subsequent Clancy books have shown the same ease with technical and strategic issues - so much so that Clancy's take on those issues is itself considered seriously in some policy circles (as a senator, Dan Quayle famously argued that Clancy's Red Storm Rising, which depicts a Soviet-initiated World War III from a technical and strategic perspective, made the case for U.S. development of an "anti-satellite weapons system"). Rumors abound that Clancy, a political conservative who favors increased military spending, has technical sources in high and secret places.

Mike Godwin ( is a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the author of Cyberrights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age (Times Books).
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Title Annotation:Tom Clancy's book '
Author:Godwin, Mike
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:May 1, 1999
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