Sen. John McCain and Rick Smith, 1999

Sen. John McCain, 1936-2018

In June, 1999, Senator John McCain had started his presidential bid and was visiting companies in Silicon Valley, including Secure Computing Corporation, where I worked. He was there to discuss government policies on several tech topics, including the export of cryptographic technologies and products. I had been writing policy statements about crypto exports as part of my job. I’d also published my first book, Internet Cryptographyso they flew me out from Minnesota to meet the Senator.

The fundamental problem, which will never be resolved, is the balance between freedom and safety. Government agencies, especially those that rely on wiretapping, don’t like to see proliferation of encryption technology. Today, the arguments revolve around unlocking iPhones used by terrorists and child pornographers.

The discussion with Sen. McCain revolved around the benefits of electronic commerce and the national defense risks. If US companies sell strong cryptographic products to other countries, it makes the NSA’s job much harder. This dispute remains one reason why the Internet has so many security problems. In 1999, companies overseas were beginning to produce and sell quality cryptographic products that were hard to eavesdrop on. US companies were heavily restricted on the crypto they could export, and risked being closed out of that market.

Our conversations were polite and we both shared now-familiar arguments. I suspect he had the exact same conversation at other tech companies.

One striking memory was the slope of Sen. McCain’s shoulders. In our photo, our shoulders look about the same. In person, looking face-to-face, his shoulders sloped dramatically downwards. It was a silent reminder of him being shot down and captured in North Vietnam.

 

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