Sunday, January 22, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 288: Biomythography - Note 40, When Encryption Was Illegal

Biomythography 40

Encryption Was Illegal, Punk

In the summer when I was sixteen, I made a friend lifeguarding at Williamsburg Square. His name was Adam. 

On the first day, we discovered we had a similar love for punk and new wave music. But we came from different backgrounds and knew different stuff about it. I had only mix tapes from the radio, where I had found WHFS playing songs by Bad Brains, Root Boy Slim, The Ramones, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, and The Nighthawks. My recording quality was terrible. Adam had a paid-for collection, No Wave, with two songs I'd heard from Joe Jackson and the Stranglers but mostly it had tunes by bands I'd never heard before like The Police, Klark Kent, and U.K. Squeeze. We listened to Roxanne and Take Me I'm Yours until the other lifeguards screamed at us to stop.

We listened to those after the screaming, too. 

Adam revealed that he attended Gaithersburg High School. He had lots of stories about it. Coincidently, later that summer I discovered I was going to return to public school, probably at Seneca Valley. That meant we were going to attend rival schools. We laughed about it. 

Between the music and the high school stories, we shared job advice. Even though we both had our pool operators licenses and I had been a pool manager, it was illegal for us to be in those types of positions. You had to be eighteen to manage a pool in our county. That’s why we were working as regular lifeguards. We were waiting for the college kids to leave so we could take their jobs.

It was also against the county rules to have food on the deck of our pool, which is why I got nervous when Adam persuaded me to go halves on an extra large pizza. Our manager had taken off. Adam got me to say yes on the basis that we wouldn't get many chances when our managers were gone. So we ordered. The delivery man came. We ate. Against all odds, the county inspector arrived ten minutes later in a county inspection vehicle. Of course, we had no manager. 

We could see the car swing into the lot while we were eating pizza on the deck. Adam started wolfing his half down. I knew I couldn't finish. Nevertheless, Adam went to delay the inspector while I skulked to the back of the pool office and called the pool management company. Their phone rang.

“What should I do with the pizza box?” I asked while the line kept ringing.

“The trashcan.”

“There isn’t one.” There was no food allowed, so there wasn’t a need for one normally. 

“I don’t know," he hissed through a half-closed door. "Stuff it into a skimmer.”

The company didn't answer their office phone. Then I ran out, did a crap job with the box, and dashed back. When the inspector stepped into the guardhouse, I moved forward to talk with him. He demanded our certificates. Adam made his escape, however temporary, and he saw the edge of the pizza box I'd left poking out of the skimmer lid. He applied extra force to solve the problem.

After I delayed as long as I believably could with our paperwork and the chlorine test kit, the inspector pushed by us, clipboard in hand, and berated us for not having a legal pool operator on duty. Then he inspected the pool, testing the pH of the water and opening up the skimmers. 

He opened the first skimmer top easily. He opened the next. Then he stepped up to the one I'd crammed a pizza box into and pulled. The lid wouldn't come up. He grunted. He strained. He put down his test kit and used both hands. He popped the plastic lid off.

"Huh." He peered in. He put in his fingers and swished them around. "Not too bad."

Before he closed it, I strolled closer and peered in. No pizza box. Adam had moved it.

"Well, that's enough of that," said the inspector.

He switched to testing water in different places because we'd passed his first two attempts to find a violation. He never found the skimmer that was full of wet cardboard and crusts. We heaved a sigh of relief, agreed with the inspector that our pool manager was scum, and so was our management company, and so were we, and we agreed to shut down the pool. We waited a while after he left, opened back up, and returned to running everything in the illegal manner that earned us paychecks.

On the topic of job advice, mine to Adam was that being a pool operator was easier than being a lifeguard. Adam's advice was that the company had no damn choice but to make us managers when the college students were gone. And he was right. By the middle of August I was making more money than I ever had, twenty cents above minimum wage.

Even in the early fall, I kept in touch with Adam. I visited his house with my parents' rusty Ranch Wagon and I got acquainted with cereal in bright green, blue, or red boxes, almost all made from candied sugar that stayed crunchy even in milk. I saw bits of weird, new technology around his house. For one thing, Adam had a VCR next to the television. I'd read about them. I'd never seen one before. They weren’t popular enough to be in the news. Nevertheless, Adam’s parents owned a huge, top-loading steel model.

Then there was the TV service itself. Adam didn’t just have VHF and UHF reception and a VCR. His father had put a metallic dish on the roof of their house. He was able to pick up extra channels with it.

"He's just proving a point," Adam said. 

That seemed to be the case. The pictures on the screen were wonky, sometimes weirdly tilted, although I knew Adam could see all sorts of movies I couldn't, so I was impressed anyway. While I was there, I squinted into the occasionally slanted images and watched part of a Clint Eastwood film that had yet to be released to television. Adam got impatient. 

"Let's go," he said. We turned off the set and headed out. I didn't see satellite television again for months.

When I did notice it at Adam's house during one of my late fall visits, the service had changed. The signal from the satellite had been scrambled more effectively. I could see on the screen how the movies had gotten lost in snow. The receiver picked up no sound. I fiddled with the controls for a few minutes. Someone had changed the descrambler box, I thought. I traced the cables from it but I was afraid to move anything. I'd learned that satellites broadcast television signals to subscribers like hotels because the hotels can't get good reception in all rooms without a special carrier like a cable or satellite business. There were lots more subscribers than hotels but for all of them, they needed de-scrambling boxes from the carrier company. The boxes were essential.

“That’s illegal,” Adam’s father commented when he saw me looking at it. I turned. He was a big man with broad shoulders and a belly like a bowling ball. He had a head like one, too. But he was scowling at the equipment, I thought, not at me.

“Getting satellite service for free?” I asked.

“No, that’s goddamn legal." His voice often seemed angry and insistent. This time, though, his index finger got involved as he jabbed the air for emphasis. "They broadcast it everywhere. Anyone is allowed to pick up a signal if they can. That is the way the law works. It's the way radio signals work, too.”

“What's the illegal part then?”

“They're using encryption to scramble the signal. You have to be a subscriber and use the decryption box they give you to get the shows.”

“Scrambling the signal is illegal?” I was pretty sure it had been scrambled during the summer but Adam's family had descrambled it using the electronic hobbyist gear I didn't understand.

“No.” Adam's father got as exact as a physicist, which was appropriate since that was his job. “Every other kind of signal scrambling is legal except for the one they’re using. They're using encryption. And there is a law in the books that says only the military is allowed to do that.”

At the time, I had to take his word for it. Later, though, as personal computers got popular, I was able to research the history of encryption on FidoNet. There, other computer hobbyists verified the claims made by Adam’s father. They cited national laws. They debated the rules on encryption. The arguments raged on. 

Satellite businesses said the U.S. law about encryption exports didn't apply to them. They weren't sending the means of encryption or decryption out of the country. Everyone else pointed out that the satellite companies sold services to Canada and Mexico. Plus they were broadcasting their encrypted signals over the border. According to those folks, the satellite executives should go to jail. Even those people who thought satellite televisions broke the law, though, didn't necessarily think the law was right.

In an era when hardly anyone had access to a computer, amending the U.S. export regulations to treat encryption-capable devices like war technology made some sense. During the 1950s and 1960s, the rules must have seemed unremarkable. Then in the 1970s computers got smaller. Universities and colleges could afford more of them. Programmers got better at encryption. Keeping secrets got cheaper and better. Companies started to use cryptography to guard communications. 

In contrast, non-technical judges issued rulings that seemed to prohibit talking about cryptography. The courts treated encryption more and more like nuclear codes, which is something they understood. Lawyers took positions against thinking, essentially, or at least against doing certain kinds of very simple math. A lot of people outside the courts - like mathematicians - didn't like the way the rules were headed. The fight wasn't cooling down. It was getting hotter. Anti-encryption laws were coming up against the microcomputer revolution with all of its changes that made cryptography better. 

In the midst of all this, the satellite and cable television companies appeared to ignore the laws. At the very least, their actions pointed out how rules for large corporations and rules for individuals were proving to be enforced very differently. 

In 1989, the United States softened its stance against using cryptography for access controls and message authentication. Legislators kept encryption exports illegal but made cryptography acceptable. Finally, in 1992, the federal government added an exception in the export rules for use of cryptography and satellite television descramblers. 

Encryption had become legal. The lobbying efforts of the satellite and cable television companies paid off. They'd been breaking the law and claiming they weren't for fifteen years. Finally, they had gotten the law on their side. 


As far as I can tell:

In the late 1970s, satellites and cable television companies scrambled their signals with filters. They wanted to keep the customers' neighbors from watching shows on unscrambled signals. But their filter systems started breaking down pretty fast. Hobbyist magazines printed blueprints of the de-filtering boxes. Since determined television viewers could build their own, they didn't need to subscribe to the satellite or cable service to watch cool stuff.

The companies tried other techniques like inverting the signals or adding interfering signals to the video or audio. Hobbyist magazines caught on to those, too. Anything the businesses could make to de-scramble a signal for their customers, tinkerers could duplicate with time, patience, and a friend at Radio Shack.

In 1981, satellite television broadcasters brought out VideoCipher II, which had DES (Data Encryption Standard, a scheme designed to be broken by the NSA) at the heart of it. They encrypted the video to scramble it. This implies they used VideoCipher I even earlier, too. Adam's father was right. The businesses made their move to encryption a decade in advance of any changes to the law.

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