Gili Vidan is a PhD candidate at the Department of the History of Science and a research fellow at the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Harvard. Her work looks at digital information technologies, changing notions of public trust and democratic governance, and narratives of crisis and future-making in the US. Her dissertation, “Technologies of Trust,” traces technical attempts to solve the problems of trust and transparency, with a focus on the development of public-key cryptography in late 20th- and early 21st-century US. She is the 2019-20 Ambrose Monell Foundation Fellow in Technology and Democracy at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.

Talk: Trusting in the Network Society: Encryption as an Instrument of Decentralization

Abstract: Before Apple and the FBI battled over the encryption of iPhones, there was the Clipper chip. In the mid-1990s, the encryption of phone calls and other electronic communications became a focal point for public debates over information, identity, and trust in the US. This talk explores the policy debates surrounding the Escrowed Encryption Standard (EES) and analyzes the political mobilization against it, which occurred primarily online through listservs and forums. Policymakers sought to balance the demands of law enforcement for privileged access to encrypted communications with the interests of industry and concerns of civil liberties activists, offering the EES as a potential middle ground. Opponents of the EES argued that strong cryptography necessarily eschewed the possibility of introducing a middleman into the authentication scheme and that the very purpose of strong cryptography was to defend the individual’s basic liberties against the intrusions of the state. They claimed that strong cryptography was incompatible with the use of an “escrow,” and that good encryption ought to allow netizens to sidestep the problems of centralized authority, develop transparent and fool-proof governing algorithms, and “become the colonizers of cyberspace.” I argue that these opponents of EES framed “decentralization” as a desirable method of trusting in public without the need for relying on trusted public institutions, showing how decentralization became both a technological and political imperative for the nascent network society, an imperative we still strive towards today. A close look at this early effort to regulate the network society reveals several hidden tensions in today’s calls to “re-decentralize the Web” and challenge Big Tech’s hold over information.