March 07, 2001, 1:58 PM — Philip Zimmermann, inventor of the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption protocol, left his job at Network Associates Inc. last month after a disagreement about the future of PGP. In 1996, Zimmermann founded Pretty Good Privacy Inc., which was then bought by Network Associates in 1997. Last month, he announced he will take a post at Dublin-based Hush Communications Inc.
Zimmermann is a world-renowned cryptographer who beat criminal charges brought by the U.S. government when he began to distribute encryption protocols to groups around the world. He's a passionate believer that everyone deserves the right to encryption and that personal privacy may cease to exist altogether in a very short time.
Q: Why are you so passionate about privacy? Did you have a personal experience that led you to encryption?
A: Well, I was a peace activist in the 1980s, and at that time grass-roots organizations working on peace and justice were in an adversarial relationship with the White House and the FBI. The government had a long history of abusing powers of surveillance against [the anti-]Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement, so we needed to have some means of protecting files and communications. Then, human rights workers in other countries needed to have protection against their own governments, so it grew out of that.
Q: Did you ever feel that you were being watched? That you needed to protect yourself?
A: I didn't feel I was being watched. During the criminal investigation -- there was an active criminal investigation against me -- I learned that they intercepted my postal mail, and through a Freedom of Information Act request I got a log of postal mail items intercepted. Some of the items they intercepted came from organizations like Greenpeace. Greenpeace is a very subversive organization [laughing].
Q: How did you feel about the government going through your mail?
A: There is a certain irony when the government invades my privacy during a legal investigation that got started when I tried to protect the privacy of others.
Q: Where is the biggest threat to personal privacy today? If you had to single out one person or one entity, or one philosophy, what would it be?