Leading Article: Privacy v trade: a cryptic battle

Related Topics
A NEW trade war may be starting between Europe and America; one all the more dangerous because few people are even aware that the trade exists. It is a trade war over computer cryptography, a subject that may seem as esoteric as Egyptology.

In fact, it is as important as oil. This is because we have moved into a global economy where money no longer exists as a pile of gold or paper in a bank's vaults, brought out by clerks, but as information in a bank's computers, accessible to anyone with a plastic card and the right code word. Only 20 years ago, the bank robber wore a crash helmet and used a sawn-off shotgun. Now he wears a suit and uses a password. In an economy based on goods, property is guarded by armed men. In an economy based on information, the guards on property are codes and ciphers.

These ciphers have to be almost uncrackable. The security of commerce depends on reliable secrecy as much as it depends on safes that cannot be blown and guards who cannot be bribed. Modern computers have no trouble with that. The same power that allows them to co- ordinate in vast networks, shuffling information (or money) around the world at the speed of light allows them to manipulate vast prime numbers to produce unbreakable mathematical containers for sensitive information in fractions of a second.

This secrecy can be provided by any business computer using programs that are now freely available, though the American government has tried for years to control their spread. Anyone can now have access to absolute privacy.

That is where the trouble starts. For among the beneficiaries of this new-found privacy could be the Medellin cartel, the IRA, or an international paedophile ring: everyone, in short, in whose doings the security services have a legitimate interest.

The American National Security Agency has an ambitious solution in mind. It plans to make freely available a set of chips, known as 'Clipper', to do our encryption for us. The NSA hopes that Clipper will be built in to mobile telephones, fax machines and modems and universally used.

There is one small snag: the Clipper chip will have built into it a 'pass key': a mathematical function or super password that would enable the government to read every message sent if certain legal conditions were fulfilled.

This proposal is being fiercely contested, not only because of the power it gives to governments but also because governments cannot be trusted not to pass on commercial information to favoured national companies. A legal guarantee of privacy is much less reliable than the iron complexities of cryptographical mathematics.

The worst possible outcome would be the division of the world into cryptographic blocs within which governments could read whatever they liked. In an information economy, encryption schemes might take the place of tariff walls, and do quite as much damage.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: If you are a committed Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: There's a crackle in the Brum air

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Obama has admitted that his administration underestimated the threat posed by Isis  

Syrian air-strikes: Does the US have the foggiest idea who their enemy is?

Kim Sengupta
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style