Tag Archive for terrorism

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.