While most people might not know what PGP encryption is, almost everyone with access to an email account uses it regularly. It’s one of the most popular ways to digitally sign, encrypt or decrypt emailed documents, adding an additional level of security of email communications. But what might sound like a fairly dry and mundane tool has a history fraught with intrigue, peril, spy agencies and very real threats to the creator, a computer scientist named Phil Zimmerman.
Zimmerman first developed PGP encryption in 1991, after reading a New York Times article about proposed legislation that would require programmers to write a “back door” into encryption programs allowing government agencies to read anyone’s email messages. Concerned by what he thought would be an outrageous breach of personal rights and the death of secure email, Zimmerman created the first version of Pretty Good Privacy.
Friends of Zimmerman distributed PGP 1.0, even going so far as to upload it to BBS server via late-night calls on pay phones over fears of government intervention. Those fears came true in February 1993, as he was investigated for “munitions export without a license” – in this case the “weapon” was the PGP encryption program, which had been globally circulated by users. This lead to a lengthy and protracted legal battle which turned Zimmerman into something of a folk hero among computer experts before the charges were eventually dropped.
Today, PGP encryption is not only widely accepted but is now used as a standard for high-level data encryption. PGP is one of only two email-related encryption standards accepted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to provide adequate protection for financial data regulated in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (which enforced tougher reporting standards on Wall Street companies). The other is S/MIME.
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