Tag Archive for privacy

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.