How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt

Read in the voice of the Mission Impossible announcer: This t-shirt was originally created as a protest against US Export laws. Until 2000, US export law considered the computer code on the shirt as a “munition” that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to re-create this shirt.

The T-Shirt

When I was at the GEL conference in 2016, I met a woman who worked for the website Design a Shirt. We started talking about the most creative t-shirts we’d ever seen. This brought me back to the late 1990s when I discovered one of the most innovative shirts ever created — a t-shirt that the US government classified as a weapon.

Oddly Necessary Background on US Encryption Export Policy

This t-shirt was created as a protest against the way the US government was treating the export of encryption (i.e., secret codes).  Until 2000, US government considered encryption as a munition that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national.

It seems a little odd that software that’s embedded in everyone’s iPhone today used to be illegal to export. Put in historical context it makes more sense. For centuries, encryption was used to allow military organizations to pass messages. The most famous of these devices was the German Enigma machine from World War II. The capturing of an Enigma machine allowed the allies to break the German codes and win the war.

The German Enigma Encryption Machine

In the 1990s, US government policy still hadn’t veered from this idea. Any secret codes that were used by foreign governments should be breakable by the US government without too much effort. At the same time, encryption was becoming a critical part of internet communications. The issue here was that the exact same technology that was powering the internet was also used to send secret government and criminal communications.  This led to internet browser companies like American Online to create two different browser versions. They distributed a “strong encryption” that was only available in the US and a “weak encryption” that could be exported everywhere else.

Some internet activists were upset about weak encryption. You see something similar in the fight today between the US government and Apple on the right to be able to break into criminals’ iPhones. The government was claiming that it was dangerous for people to have secrets that the government couldn’t see if they needed too. The protesters were saying weak encryption creates a weak internet.

Making The T-Shirt

This is where t-shirts make their appearance. Some encryption advocates had the idea to create a very small but strong encryption program whose entire code could be put on a t-shirt. Therefore, anyone wearing this t-shirt to a foreign country or even seen by a foreign national would be exporting a munition would be breaking a law.

That’s a creative t-shirt! I really wanted one. However, I ran into two problems. First, most of the t-shirts are pretty ugly. Secondly,  since the law changed in 1999, the demand for this t-shirt has plummetted and it’s no longer sold.

With no one making these t-shirts anymore, I needed to do it myself. First, I needed to find a design of the shirt that I really liked. Second, I needed to find a way to print it.

For the design, Vipul Ved Prakash made a wonderful version of the computer code in the shape of a dolphin.  The company ThinkGeek printed the shirt back in the 1990s.

So then I needed to make the t-shirt. Most t-shirt printers want you to buy in bulk but Design a Shirt works well for one offs.  Making the shirt is easy. I just uploaded the image and choose a shirt type. The benefit to making your own shirt is you can pay the $5 more for a super premium quality shirt. I also chose to pay another dollar to print the dolphin in blue. If you want to print the shirt, it’s still available on the Design a Shirt site.

Here’s the Final T-Shirt
And Here’s the Image I Used in the Shirt

I really love this t-shirt and proud I re-created it. I thought someone would recognize it when I wore it; however, even at technology events, I haven’t met anybody who recognized it. I even added the last paragraph to the shirt to explain it to people. I’m glad that I made it because the world needs more of these shirts — clever, interesting and pretty designs that tried to change the world. If you want to print one for yourself, it’s still available online.

Note: In the unlikely event you’d like to learn more, there’s a good Wikipedia article on US encryption policy that even mentions the t-shirt.