The apparent suicide of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "DC Madam", in a toolshed behind her mother's home in Florda has excited the imagination of conspiracy theorists. The focus of the theories of course, is Palfrey's list of the clients of escort service. Did some powerful client who wanted his identity protected from scandal arrange to have the "DC Madam" killed? Here's what Wikipedia has to say about those records.
Palfrey appeared on ABC's 20/20 as part of an investigative report on 4 May 2007. In combination with Palfrey's statement that she has 10,000 to 15,000 phone numbers of clients, this has caused several clients' lawyers to contact Palfrey to see whether accommodations could be made to keep their identities private. Ultimately, ABC News, after going through what was described as "46 lbs" [21 kg] of phone records, decided that none of the potential clients was sufficiently "newsworthy" to bother mentioning.
The scandal has led to the resignation of Ambassador Randall L. Tobias from his State Department position and as the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Also named was Washington Times columnist Harlan Ullman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On July 9th, 2007 Palfrey released the supposed entirety of her phone records for public viewing and download on the Internet in TIFF format, though days prior to this, her civil attorney Montgomery Blair Sibley had dispatched 54 CD-ROM copies to researchers, activists, and journalists. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) acknowledged on the night of July 9th that he had been a customer of Palfrey's escort service.
Note the words "supposed entirety" in the paragraph above.
Speculation of foul play will revolve around the idea that Palfrey held something back. With Palfrey dead any secrets she may have known will either be lost or usurped. There's nothing for example, to prevent some news agency from claiming the former DC Madam left a list consisting entirely of Republicans in their possession. The list could be authentic or might not. But assuming for the moment that Palfrey did have the goods on someone and paid the price for it, the circumstance underlines the fact that in the Information Age, knowledge is power. And money. Suppose you had a piece of information that was worth your life. How would you protect it?
One option is to give it to your lawyer, because everybody knows that lawyers are upright people who will never sell their clients out, pledged as they are to "justice for all". What's the alternative? Public key encryption.
Public-key cryptography, also known as asymmetric cryptography, is a form of cryptography in which a user has a pair of cryptographic keys—a public key and a private key. The private key is kept secret, while the public key may be widely distributed. The keys are related mathematically, but the private key cannot be practically derived from the public key. A message encrypted with the public key can be decrypted only with the corresponding private key.
The system ensures that the possessor of the private key is the authentic owner of the information. But the hitch is that security depends on the security of the private key. Anyone who acquires the private key can decrypt the message and incidentally, make a claim to own the information. In order to use the private key as a form of insurance against assassination the following scheme can be implemented.
The bombshell can be posted in an encrypted form to a public site. The author can claim in public that a particular string will appear in the decrypted message. Since the public key is accessible to everybody, all that is needed is a mechanism that will broadcast the private key to the public in the event that the mechanism to do so is not periodically disarmed.
Suppose such a system exists. Killing the possessor of a vital secret will mean that the mechanism to broadcast the private key to the public will not be disarmed. When a timed cycle elapses the key will be released to the public. The secret message can then be decrypted by anyone without any doubts as to the provenance of the message. It will be indisputably authentic as long as the predicted string is found because it is the only key that will unlock the secret that is already in public view, albeit unreadable. This means the system to release the private key need not involve lawyers. It can consist of a computer running a timed process. Or it can consist of trusted individuals who have sealed envelopes they need to mail in the event of death.
Palfrey went to law school and worked for a time as a paralegal. She was not stupid. One only hopes that if a secret she kept cost her life another secret can come back from the grave to unleash revenge.
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