[Dave Birch] Now that Britain has declared the nation of Iceland to be part of the axis of evil…

The freezing order against Landsbanki, which owns failed internet bank Icesave, was issued under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

[From Iceland bank freeze ‘used anti-terror laws’ – politics.co.uk]

…a new Cod War may be just around the corner. Hence it is diverting to remember the previous cod wars and the key contribution of the Icelandic people to the story of cryptography. Implausible as it may sound, I have in front of me a splendid book by Mark Kurlansky called “Cod: Biography of the fish that changed the world“. Within its pages it a lovely story of the neverending struggle between security and new technology.

The Anglo-Danish Convention of 1901 gave the British permission to fish up to three miles from the coast of Iceland, a state of affairs that the volcanic colony was most unhappy about. By the late 1920s, the Icelandic Coast Guard had started to arrest British (and German) trawlers found within its (as it saw) territorial waters. From 1928, the British trawlers were equipped with radio and started passing coded messages between themselves to alert each other when Coast Guard vessels were in and out of harbour. “Grandmother is well” meant that the Coast Guard were in port, for example. In an early example of governments attempting to legislate new technology, the plucky Icelanders made it illegal send to coded wireless messages. This had no impact whatsoever, of course: British seafood companies simply devised new code systems for the trawlers to use. Think about it: how on Earth would an Icelandic wireless operator know whether “Tottenham Hotspur are the pride of North London” was a coded message or gibberish? Then came World War II. Iceland got independence from Denmark in 1944, but more importantly the British trawlers were requisitioned for the war effort, so Iceland found itself with the only fishing fleet in Northern Europe and Britain’s “sole” supplier (tee hee).

Things were quiet for a while, until the First Cod War in 1958 when the might of the Royal Navy (which was recently told not to arrest Somali pirates in case they claim asylum) was deployed against the Icelanders. Then, in 1972, the Cod War started. Iceland extended its territorial waters to 50 miles and the British once again sent the fleet. But in the intervening period, the Icelanders had developed and deployed a secret weapon (literally: it was a closely-guarded secret until first use). The Icelandic Navy could never outgun the British Navy (and in any case didn’t want to actually shoot at us) so they assembled a fiendish weapon: a net cutter. When they found a British trawler, they would sail behind dragging a net cutter and the trawlers net (worth a lot of money) would head for Davy Jones locker while the fish made for the underwater hills. Things did turn nasty — with ships getting rammed and live shells being fired, the Icelandic government refused to allow injured British seamen treatment — until eventually NATO made Britain back down.

The moral of the story is that when cryptography is outlawed, only outlaws use cryptography. The Icelandic ships couldn’t use coded wireless transmissions, but the bad guys (in this instance, us) ignored the law and were able to operate successfully beyond it.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto

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