The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency
James Bamford, Penguin Books, 1983.

[A] foursome of inventors in Seattle, working in their spare time in the back of a garage, managed to develop a new type of voice scrambler. Led by thirty-five-year-old Carl Nicolai, a job-shopper, or technical "Kelly girl," the group called its new invention the Phasorphone and submitted a patent application in October 1977. In April 1978, Nicolai finally received a response from the Patent Office. But when he opened the letter, he was stunned Instead of a patent, his hands held a strange form with the words SECRECY ORDER in large bold letters across the top.

Nicolai had suddenly been assaulted with one of the oldest weapons in the nation's national security arsenal: the Invention Secrecy Act.


Nicolai's secrecy order told him little except that he faced two years in jail and a $10,000 fine for disclosing any aspect of his device "in any way to any person not cognizant of the invention prior to the date of the order." Nowhere on the order did it say why it was issued or who ordered the action.


The object of Nicolai's patent application and the NSA's anxiety was a voice privacy system that relied more, apparently, on the science of transmission security than cryptography. As opposed to cryptography, which merely renders the contents of a message unintelligible to those without the key, transmission security conceals the very existence of the message itself. The seed for the Phasorphone was planted in 1960 in an article on communications security by Alfred Pfanstiehl for Analog magazine. Pfanstiehl suggested that instead of the traditional method of transmission, where signals are sent between transmitter and receiver over a single frequency, a system of pseudorandom wave forms be used. Under such a system a code could be devised using pseudorandom alterations of the frequency spectrum exactly synchronized between transmitter and receiver. The system held promise for an area particularly vulnerable to eavesdropping: CB and marine band radio. But it could also be modified for telephone.

Last modified September 9, 2003
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