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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 05:02 GMT 06:02 UK

World: Americas

Internet encryption divides America

Civil libertarians and the US Government are at odds over encryption

Paul Reynolds, BBC Washington Correspondent

Encryption is something you might associate with the German Enigma machine and its decoding at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, but these days it has become a hot Internet, and even, a civil rights issue.

More and more Internet communications are being encrypted, but governments around the world are worried that encryption also gives criminals a safe method of communication.

In the United States, legislators, legal authorities and civil liberties advocates are debating two main points:

  • The first is whether law enforcement agencies like the FBI should be able to gain access to the keys of the increasingly powerful encryption programmes now being used.
  • The second is whether the U.S. and other governments should continue to restrict the export of such software on grounds of national security.

Easy encryption encouraged

In considering the first point, it is worth noting how much encryption is already a daily part of the Internet.

Whenever you buy something, for example, and send your personal details including your credit card number, that information is encrypted, luckily for you.

If you bother to read the privacy policies explained on most e-commerce sites, you will find that out. But it happens automatically.

Proponents of encryption argue that you should be able to encrypt all your e-mails and files as easily and so protect them from all the prying eyes that can intercept your communications at so many points along the electronic trail.

This, they say, is essential for the development of the Internet.

Alan Davidson is a lawyer in Washington with the pressure group the Centre for Democracy and Technology, and he argues for the unrestricted extension of encryption.

"What most people don't realise is that the way messages are sent over the Internet is like sending a postcard. Encryption puts an envelope around that postcard. Right now, there is not enough encryption and people don't realise how insecure their transmissions are," he said.

Mr Davidson says that this is a "Golden Age of Wiretapping," which includes intercepting e-mails. He says that the authorities have been enjoying easy access to communications for too long.

A master key

[ image: The FBI's Barry Smith says officials need access to the plain text of encrypted files]
The FBI's Barry Smith says officials need access to the plain text of encrypted files
Over now to the FBI, which sees things rather differently.

Barry Smith, every inch the classic FBI agent, is the Unit Chief at the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs.

He argues that the FBI and other agencies need the ability to decode communications and recovered files if allowed to do so by a court.

"We in law enforcement," he said, "are encouraging the development and use of recoverable type encryption products, which provide strong encryption to legitimate users while at the same time, if they are used by criminals and terrorists, allow the plain text to be obtained."

Mr Smith says that the FBI does not put forward its own technical solution but points to two methods of getting the plain, or original, text.

One is key recovery, in which the solution is written into the software, and the other is key escrow, in which the key is held in trust, or escrow, by a third party.

Access denied

On the second point, the export of powerful encryption software, we ran a little experiment in the BBC office in Washington.

Kevin Anderson with BBC News Online tried to download the US version of an popular encryption program called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) from the official download site.

He was immediately asked a series of questions about himself and his computer and was eventually denied access.

The site had accurately discovered that the main BBC computer, through which he gained access to the Internet, is in the UK and not the US, making it illegal for him to download the software. He was denied access to the file.

However it is possible to download the same version of the software from popular shareware sites, thus circumventing the export ban on the program.

Battle in Congress

[ image: Representative Bob Goodlatte says onerous encryption export controls harm business]
Representative Bob Goodlatte says onerous encryption export controls harm business
The debate has now moved to the US Congress.

Many members of Congress feel that these rules, which are followed by many governments, are now out of date and indeed pointless, as encryption software is being developed all around the world.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte from Virginia has introduced a Bill in the House of Representatives. The SAFE bill, which stands for Safety and Freedom through Encryption, would free American exporters from restrictions.

"Encryption fights crime," Mr Goodlatte said.

"It prevents people breaking into the New Stock Exchange or a nuclear power plant, and we want to make sure that a competitive market exists so that people are encouraged to use encryption, and American companies are allowed to sell competing products," Mr Goodlatte said.

He comes from a state where there are many high tech companies that could benefit from a lifting of the export rules. He says the SAFE bill has widespread support in Congress.

But the Justice Department and the FBI want Congress to pass a quite different bill, one, which would make it easier for them secretly to gain access to suspects' computers in their homes, to gather passwords, to install "recovery devices" and to disable encryption and security software.

Authorities fear that encryption is "increasingly used as a means to promote criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, white collar crime, and the distribution of child pornography," according to a draft letter written by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jon Jennings.

Civil libertarians say authorities are using the spectre of new technology to trample citizen's rights.

"They are using the cyberspace issue of encryption and its impact on law enforcement for justification to invade the home," said James Dempsey with the Centre for Democracy and Technology.

Political balancing act

The basic argument comes down to this: How do you balance the freedom of the individual with the need for society to protect itself?

In this case, the technology might be moving so fast that governments find that they are simply bypassed.

In this, as in so many ways, the Internet is writing its own rules.

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