Phil Zimmerman Investigation Dropped

by Charles A. Gimon



On Thursday, January 11, 1996, the Justice Department dropped its investigation against Phil Zimmerman, author of the popular Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption program. The announcement was made in a press release from the U.S. Attorney's office for the Northern District of California. No reason was given, and the press release said that "no further comment will be made".

Zimmerman had been under investigation for supposedly violating ITAR, the U.S. government's International Traffic in Arms Regulations. His PGP software is strong enough to have been classified as a munition under ITAR, just like a hand grenade or a stealth bomber. In June of 1991, as Congress was considering a possible ban on the use of such strong encryption, the PGP program was uploaded to the Internet, and made available to anyone who wanted to copy it. Even though Zimmerman himself didn't put the software on the Internet, the Justice Department started an investigation against him in February 1993 for allegedly exporting a munition. (See The Phil Zimmerman Case, InfoNation, June 1995.)

The announcement was met with celebration by Internet activists. The Zimmerman case had become the story of an ordinary, innocent guy fighting for his rights against the abuses of big government. Phil Zimmerman himself had stood up to just about three years of felony charges hanging over his head, as well as the unusual stresses of being a celebrity for all the wrong reasons. The government's giving in was a welcome bit of news given the campaign for Internet censorship in Congress and the push by the FBI to allow increased government snooping.

Cynics pointed out that the news hadn't really changed anything; in fact, U.S. Attorney William Keane himself warned the Wall Street Journal that there had been "no change in law, no change in policy". The whole affair could happen again to someone else, if the Justice Department feels up to it. Some activists expressed disappointment that a chance to have the restrictions on exporting cryptographic software overturned in court had been lost. Super-cynics are assuming that if the goverment won't prosecute someone for exporting PGP, the National Security Agency must have just found a way to crack it (pure speculation, of course). In any case, the statute of limitations had only a few more months to go before Zimmerman would have been free and clear anyway.

Optimists felt that the decision might signal a long-overdue change in Washington's attitude towards cryptography, especially given Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown's ambiguous statement the following day, apparently unrelated, that export restrictions on cryptographic software should be eased. In any case, it provided a happy ending, more or less, to one of the major Internet stories of the decade.

Charles A. Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at or
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