Somebody once described cryptography as the “Canada” of computing. It doesn’t have a big population but it seems to turn out more than its fair share of interesting people without anyone particularly noticing where they come from.

A perfect example of this imaginary nationality is Phil Zimmermann, famous as the author of Pretty Good Privacy, who by the time you read this will have given a demonstration of his new encryption software to secure Voice-over-IP connections - “Zfone”- to the polo-shirted throngs at Black Hat in Las Vegas. It’s just a development name; this is not a product that can be bought or downloaded. Yet.

Zimmermann is one of these people all long-time journalists and computer techies have heard of but few look to tangle with in person. What do you talk about with a cryptographic expert when you know gnat pants all about cryptography? What’s the difference between public key encryption and a symmetric cipher? No idea. In fact, Zimmermann is personable to talk to and – unusually for such an apolitical industry – keen to stray from the usual bits and bytes discussion towards more political and philosophical themes. You’re more likely to discuss privacy and why the state’s interest in technology is always Orwellian, than the arcana of cryptography.

He told Techworld he will be doing his Zfone VoIP demo on an Apple Mac, but we shouldn’t read anything into this. The software will be available on a PC if all goes to plan, and somebody (other than the current investors, i.e., himself and Jeff Pulver of VoIP advocacy fame) comes up with further development funds. There are still no timescales for the software, though the security element is now apparently in its final form. Most of the work that still needs to be done is to the open source Schtoom client, with which he has a few technical grumbles.

Zimmermann’s record in this area, and canny knack of seeing the latest techno-social trend at least a decade before it actually happens, should guarantee some money will be forthcoming.

His Pretty Good Privacy software was never used by that many people, but that wasn’t the point. It was what the few people who used it did with it that mattered – and upset the U.S authorities, who tried and failed to stop it in its tracks. It’s guaranteed that project Zfone will not run into the same problems.

Zimmermann took encryption out of the broom-cupboard of magic software whence it had resided and made it personal. Soon enough, everybody will be using encryption and probably won’t realise they are doing so, whether that be to secure a conversation over VoIP (a term that will surely die), writing data to a hard disk, or just sending email. It will disappear and just be called security.

He wants suggestions on what to call the software. If you have any ideas then visit his website and let him know. More background on the man can be found in his Wikipedia entry and Techworld also did an interview with him some while back.