Illegal Number

chris dodd by Cosmo Wenman

An illegal number is a number that represents information which is illegal to possess, utter or propagate. Any information that can be represented in binary format is representable as a number, and therefore if the information itself is illegal in some way, the pure number itself may be illegal. An illegal number may represent some type of classified information or trade secret, legal to possess only by certain authorized persons. An AACS encryption key that came to prominence in 2007 is an example of a number claimed to be a secret, and whose publication or inappropriate possession is claimed to be illegal in the United States. It allegedly assists in the decryption of any Blu-ray Disc.

As a protest of the DeCSS case, many people created ‘steganographic’ (hidden) versions of the illegal information. Dave Touretzky of Carnegie Mellon University created a ‘Gallery of DeCSS descramblers.’ In the AACS encryption key controversy, a ‘free speech flag’ was created. The illegal number was so short that a simple flag could be created by using the numbers as red-green-blue colors. The argument is that if short numbers can be made illegal, then anything based on those numbers also becomes illegal, like simple patterns of colors, etc.

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