The Death of the Public Switched Telephone Network

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And in the end, like many other innovations, better technology by itself did not kill the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

In the most awkward, backhanded way, the United States government has finally killed the PSTN—not through deliberate telecommunications policy, but by the actions of the National Security Agency. Arguably criminal acts by the NSA, combined with societal expectations, psychology, legal pressure, and a dawning awareness of the advantages of different technology, finally converged to kill the PSTN. The corpse continues to twitch, but the coroner will arrive shortly.

The damage wrought on U.S. interests by the NSA, as revealed in the Snowden documents, cannot be overstated. The NSA deliberately inserted vulnerabilities into Internet standards, made U.S. products suspect throughout the world, wasted billions upon billions of tax dollars to collect every bit of communication traveling over the Internet, and, in particular, scooped up every phone call in the U.S., along with records of who called whom. And the NSA is not even the worst of the culprits. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency collected telecommunications data for more than a quarter of a century with even slimmer justification.

As a result, the word is out: The PSTN no longer provides even the fig leaf of privacy, and the remainder of the Internet even less. And not just the PSTN: The NSA compromised all the large Internet-based voice and data communications networks, from Skype to Google Chat. And now people must ask themselves, if the NSA can compromise these networks, who else has? Who else can? Who else will?

I've recently installed private voice, text, and file applications on my cell phone from Silent Circle, a company founded by Phil Zimmerman, the man who in the 1990s very nearly went to jail to defend the right of the people to possess secure cryptography, and who made the widely used Pretty Good Privacy cryptography available to the public. Silent Circle applications use the data network, not the voice network, to carry my communications. If I call a fellow user, the voice call is encrypted end-to-end and no one can listen to my audio. The company also keeps no records of whom I call or to whom I send files.

Well, then, perhaps I'm the only one who cares. But my financial advisor and I discussed sending me some files yesterday, and he tells me his firm has just hired one of those services that—to my great annoyance—place files on a Web site and require that you log in to download them. This, of course, is because security procedures and cryptographic key management are beyond the abilities of most laypersons. I'd much rather receive the file directly. I mentioned to him that if he has other clients who want to safeguard their voice conversations, he can choose to use the same application I'm using. That would provide secure voice and secure, automatically encrypted file transmission.

Will it spread from there? At some point, companies—starting with smaller ones and working up to larger ones—and then smarter governments will demand end-to-end encryption for their voice, text, and data; smartphones make this feasible, although not yet trivial. These users will disable the PSTN on their phones to avoid mistaken unencrypted calls. Eventually, we will see the emergence of cellular "phones" with a data connection only.

The future holds two contradictory visions of telecommunications. Spy and law enforcement agencies will continue to push for complete, unimpeded access to all data and all content; other government agencies, such as those that regulate healthcare or financial institutions, will attempt to mandate secure communications. Large companies such as Google/Facebook/Skype or their successors will provide secure telecommunications that can't really be trusted because of their U.S. connections; smaller off-shore companies will offer transparency and better security; cooperative, open, noncentralized solutions will provide the best security but may prove harder to use.

All this spells the demise of the unified PSTN. We'll each have several different communications systems, all vying for our attention, each with advantages and disadvantages, and mostly incompatible with each other.

The gift of the NSA is not security but chaos.

Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolution. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.

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