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Friday, February 20, 1998 Published at 11:46 GMT

The great encryption debate

The government and the technology community are butting heads over encryption

National security or the empowerment of Big Brother? Opposing forces in the great encryption battle say that it is going to be one or the other.

Several western governments favour implementing a key-escrow (also called key-recovery) policy, which means that businesses and individuals would have to deposit the key to their computer code with a third party and allow the government to have access to it.

Many companies using the Net are worried, and most civil liberties organisations are in a panic. A key escrow policy is tantamount to giving the government the keys to your house, they warn. Citizens' privacy - if not their liberty - is at stake.

The British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, says that it is a matter of national security. Governments, he argued at a meeting with EU ministers at the beginning of 1998, must have access to the code to crack down on organised criminals who use the Internet to mask their activities.

Such threats and predictions of doom are common. And while either end may be far in the future, the debate cannot be ignored.

Encryption technologies are the locks and keys of the information age. Scrambled code protects sensitive information as it is transmitted over the Internet.

With the advent of the computer revolution, protecting electronic data - financial information, government despatches, even simple e-mail messages - is no longer the realm of computer scientists crunching code but anyone in the business of exchanging information.

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Department of Trade and Industry

UK encryption policy information

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OECD cryptography guidelines

Encryption policy resource page

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In this section

UK Government dithers on encryption regulation

What is encryption?

Digital freedom: the case for civil liberties on the Net

Security and law enforcement: the government view