Tag Archive for encryption

The Attack on Private Encryption

The current anti-encryption political push by a choir of government bureaucrats is picking up steam and has lately been joined by the head of the British MI5. The usual scarecrow of terrorism is invoked and used bluntly in public statements that border on unabashed propaganda. I did not want to write about it, but what is going on is just too much to take. The real goal of the whole campaign is suspect, so it’s worth taking a closer look at the issues involved.
Point one – ideological: We view ourselves as a democracy. With that in mind we need to understand that encryption has existed for at least four thousand years. During that time most of the rulers were ruthless tyrants and for all of them their #1 priority was to protect their rule. But even they did not crack down on private encryption – because it’s not practical (see Point three below), and they could not enforce it anyway. We, on the other hand, are facing a bunch of bureaucrats demanding the practical end to meaningful private encryption. How come a democracy can have more restrictions for its citizens than a country suffering under the rule of a tyrant?
Point two – technical: During all these thousands of years encryption algorithms have been consistently and quickly cracked by experts, usually employed by the government. Only a very few encryption algorithms withstood scrutiny for a few years, and those strong algorithms were developed by government experts and have always been well outside the reach of the general public at the time. Contrary to popular belief, all commercially available algorithms have been cracked very quickly after their introduction. Governments have traditionally been very shy about disclosing this. The situation is no different now. If a target used commercially available encryption algorithms its communications have been quickly cracked. So, what is the technical difference in the current situation? The simple answer is the sheer volume of information passing through the Internet. Individual communications can be cracked, but not the entire Internet traffic. That’s what the government bureaucracy is after: the ability to read ALL the traffic, i.e. all of our communications.
Point three – practical: the purpose of encryption is to assure privacy of communications. There are many other ways to do this other than by encryption. One vivid example: when we were hunting Bin Laden for years he did not use the Internet at all, he used messengers. He could just as well have used the regular mail. Furthermore, it’s well known that the 9/11 terrorists were communicating over regular phones, but in Aesopian language. For example they referred to a terrorist act as a “wedding.” So are our bureaucrats next going to demand the right to read all our mail, or make a terror suspect of anyone who mentions a wedding over the phone?
Conclusion: The simple truth is that the Government can penetrate any commercial encryption available to terrorists. That is if they actually go after terrorists. However, they are now demanding the right to go after everyone, mostly law abiding citizens. If that demand is denied there’s still nothing to prevent them from going specifically after terror suspects.
The moral here is pretty straightforward: if we call ourselves an uncorrupt democracy we should be very careful about giving our bureaucrats too much power, inasmuch as they want more power than tyrants of history could not get. Furthermore, the bigger danger here is that loosing civil rights is a very slippery slope.

The Government wants our encryption keys. Are home keys next?

The just released report by 13 well known cryptographers opposing the US and British governments’ sweeping demand for encryption keys has directly addressed the increasing threat of government’s insatiable thirst for power. Any government objection to this report is bound to be disingenuous.
However, there’s one more angle that begs for further exposure. The overall issue is not a scientific or technical question; it’s an ideological one. The frequently heard loud claim that inevitably we have to give up our privacy so the government can protect us is flatly untrue and hypocritical. It is indeed technologically feasible today to build a system where everyone of us would wear an irremovable collar equipped with cameras, microphones, and GPS that would communicate our location and immediate surroundings every instant “totally securely” to some highly trusted government agency. The government may argue that a) it would only access this information upon some court order; and b) it would solve a lot of crimes and save a lot of lives. True, such a system would make the police’s job very easy, would solve a lot of crimes, and save a lot of lives. But the real question is: do we want to live in that kind of society? In the American spirit the politest answer would be, “Hell, no!” And as always with this kind of hypothetical system criminals would quickly find a solution to neutralize it, leaving us with the situation that only-law abiding citizens would be subject to this massive electronic prison.
Even as we see deeper and deeper assaults on our civil rights and liberty in the manner described above, the government is more than a little shy talking about other intelligence-gathering techniques that require more skill than a slightly trained operator just pushing a few computer keys. These methods are well known among professionals, they have existed for a long time, and can be applied to any target. The drawback of course is that they are less convenient for the operators, require greater skills, and do not include a global bulk collection of information on everyone.
Well, maybe this is just what we, the people, need and want.

Encryption: panacea or just an expensive “do something”?

Once in a while we see a common cyber call to arms: “Let’s use data encryption and, voila, our problems will be over.” A typical example of this is the AP article http://cnsnews.com/news/article/no-encryption-standard-raises-health-care-privacy-questions.
This is a very common misconception. Encryption per se does not protect against hacking. Surely, encrypted files look impressive, with their very long strings of seemingly random characters. It must be mindboggling for a casual observer to imagine that anyone can actually decipher that without the secret key.
However, the reality is vastly different.
Strength of encryption is based on two main ingredients – the encryption algorithm and the secret key. Most encryption algorithms, and certainly all commercially available algorithms, are well known. They have been researched, and solutions—the ability to decrypt them without the secret key—have been found for most of them. The only undefeated algorithm so far remains the so-called “one time pad,” where the key is used only once. But even that algorithm’s strength rests on the quality and security of the key — issues that are far from trivial.
However, the main practical problem with encryption is the distribution system for the key. As in the example of a health system cited above, we are talking about a massive database with many millions of records. Sure, it’s not too difficult to encrypt all that data. But then what? The database has many legitimate users, sometimes thousands, and each one of them must have the secret key. It’s not difficult to obtain the key, one way or another, from at least one of them. Such a single breach would defeat the whole encryption scheme. I’ve often heard someone proudly declaring at a party, “I encrypt all data files in my computer.” Sometimes I will casually ask, “But where do you keep your key?” The answer invariably is, “In the computer.” Usually that person doesn’t understand that the key in his computer is also available to anyone who bothers to hack into his computer.
All in all, data encryption is a good concept, but the practicality of its deployment in databases with many users can only protect against middleschoolers. It would have marginal protection against smart highschoolers, and it would certainly be fruitless against professional cyber attackers.
Encryption per se would be just another expensive exercise in wishful thinking. It should be clearly understood: ENCRYPTION PER SE DOESNOT PROTECT AGAINST HACKING.