Without strong encryption, government can pretty reliably track virtually every personal datum we possess

Chris Gulker
Monday 14 July 1997 23:02

War is peace. Peace is war. To protect your privacy, we must be able to read all your private communications.

Remember Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984? Big Brother didn't have a problem turning reason and truth upside down in the pursuit of a paranoid's utopia. And the sworn protectors of that cradle of freedom and democracy, the US, don't seem to be far from offering the same kind of "logic".

America's top law-enforcement officials are making the case that to protect citizens and their privacy, the government needs to keep away from them the tools that assure privacy.

After all, we citizens may be up to bad things. We may be criminals or terrorists; so, reason the Feds, they need to be able to read what we write, and read what's written about us, whenever they think that's a good idea.

That's why the top US government agencies don't want to see public use of strong encryption on the Internet. The Feds want encryption restricted to forms that are feeble, or which contain an "escrow key" that allows the government (or anybody else who gets their hands on the escrow key) to snoop.

Uncle Sam wants to be able to see things we write - love letters, cheques, credit card transactions - and things that are written about us on health records, legal records, job-performance reviews, letters from Mum and from others, who may be a whole lot more interesting. All of these can now pass over the Net.

It gets even scarier than Big Brother sifting through stuff that may be a bit embarrassing. Big Brother was a two-bit piker compared with modern surveillance. Technologies exist today that can correlate seemingly unrelated data points about individuals against larger sets of data generated by whole populations. Such correlations can use seemingly innocent data, such as credit card purchase records, to reveal, with a high probability, information such as our political leanings, sexual orientation, income and current whereabouts.

Without strong encryption, people in the government (and elsewhere) can pretty reliably track virtually every personal datum we possess. If we're even minimally engaged in the current world, our unencrypted records make our lives an open book. Never in history has humankind been so widely and voluminously recorded, transcribed, invoiced, debited, credited, cross- referenced, databased and archived.

If you live in the West, somewhere other than, say, a camouflaged bivouac 40 miles outside of Nowhere, North Dakota, your daily acts result in an electronic trail that, with a little manipulation, can yield the most private details of your life.

Why worry, you say. I'm a law-abiding person, with nothing to fear. Oh, really?

People in government are people just like us. They can make mistakes, just as we do. They can even be the heinous criminals they're supposed to be protecting us against.

In fact, in my lifetime, American government officials at every level, the presidency included, have shown themselves not to be above using the powers of their office for personal gain.

A future Richard Nixon would not have to rely on breaking into the opposition's offices. Every opponent's campaign plan (not to mention their health and legal records) would be no farther away than the nearest escrowed encryption key.

And even if the Feds keep their noses clean, their insistence on second- class encryption for the masses means the bad guys, who, by definition, aren't particularly worried about ethical constraints, will find it easier to get hold of the same sort of information.

It doesn't help that the agencies which are railing loudest against strong encryption are the very ones that have the least oversight in the US federal pantheon. The National Security Agency is one of the least publicly accountable organisations in Washington. The shadowy NSA loudly makes the case for strong encryption to be blocked, lest terrorists and the ever-to-be-mistrusted "foreign element" get their blood-drenched mitts on it.

Am I missing something here? Does the NSA really think that making something illegal will keep terrorists from using it? That the same individuals who bomb department stores, blow airliners out of the sky and spray men, women and children at ticket counters with machine-gun fire, are going to be deterred from encrypting their messages because the Feds thinks it's a good idea?

And why do I think that making strong encryption illegal will keep only the law-abiding from using it?

But maybe these guys really believe their own logic. I should take a leaf from Big Brother's book.

Psst ... hey spooks! Stronger encryption is weaker. A weaker threat to privacy, that is. Encrypt it, and pass it onn


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