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Do We Deserve Total Digital Privacy?

A quarter-century ago, a “protracted battle” over encryption began between law enforcement and civil-rights activists.
April 26, 2016

Digital technology offers, in principle, unprecedented privacy. It is possible to use a computer program to encode a message so that its meaning will be revealed only to someone possessing a digital key. Such ‘encryption’ serves two principal purposes: it ensures that only the person for whom the message is intended will read it, and it guarantees that the person who appears to have sent a message is indeed the actual sender. Without encryption, someone skilled in software manipulation can with relative ease impersonate someone else over the network. (Although virtually all systems require users to enter a password, hackers can run programs that quickly try dozens of likely passwords.)

Meanwhile, the law-enforcement community, seeing computer networks as the latest venue for criminals to conspire, may soon attempt to restrict domestic encryption directly. The proposal reflects the FBI’s concern that the new digital network will stymie attempts to conduct court-sanctioned surveillance. Old-fashioned telephone lines can be tapped with relative ease, says James K. Kallstrom, the FBI’s chief of investigative technology, since each voice conversation travels along its own wire loop. Although Kallstrom says that members of the law-enforcement community ‘only want to keep the same access we already have,’ the FBI’s proposal has raised a fury among civil libertarians. ‘Wiretapping is a necessary evil, but to treat it as an entitlement would be a great mistake,’ says Marc Rotenberg, director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility’s Washington office. Alan Westin, professor of public law and government at Columbia University, concurs: ‘It’s like saying that no private home may have thick steel doors because some day the police might want to kick the door in as part of a lawful criminal investigation.’

The FBI proposal marks an opening salvo in what could become a protracted battle between government agencies and civil-liberties advocates. But even those allied with the law-enforcement community admit that public demand will eventually bring encryption into widespread use, says Donn Parker of SRI International in Menlo Park, California. The question then becomes how to catch the bad guys without tapping their phone calls.”

Excerpted from “Of Bytes and Rights,” by senior editor Herb Brody, in the November/December 1992 issue of Technology Review.

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