Privacy

Snoopy Joe Biden Accidentally Inspired PGP Encryption

He so creeped out Phil Zimmerman that the developer dropped business plans and gave the software away for free

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In the late '80s and early '90s, Phil Zimmermann was a Colorado peacenik with a half-written program that he swore would one day let people exchange messages without Big Brother peering inside. The problem was, with a freelance job and two kids, Zimmermann could never quite find the time to finish the damn code — until Joe Biden came along.

Then-Senator Biden inserted a few words into an anti-terrorism bill that might make it easier for Big Brother — or, at least, Uncle Sam — to do exactly the kind of snooping Zimmermann wanted to stop. Zimmermann had a reason to finish the program. He worked day and night for months on the thing. All his half-formed plans to build a business around the software, he put aside. "When the Biden bill hit," Zimmermann recalls, "we knew we had to change the facts on the ground." He felt he had to get people communicating secretly, before Congress did something to make secret communications exceedingly difficult.