weighing the pros and cons of encryption

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Lessons from the ‘Crypto Wars’

WHAT: Doomed to Repeat History? Lessons from the Crypto Wars of the 1990s, from the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

WHY: A growing conflict between the government, the commercial sector and individual Americans over the right and use to distribute products that use strong encryption is reminiscent of a conflict that took place in the 1990s, dubbed the “Crypto Wars.” 

While public-key encryption was first used in the mid-1970s, tensions came to a head in the 1990s with the introduction of the “Clipper Chip” by the Clinton White House – a microchip to be placed into consumer phones that provided the public with strong cryptographic tools without sacrificing access to unencrypted versions of communications by the law enforcement and intelligence communities.

The most controversial aspect of the Clipper Chip was the “key escrow” system it relied on to allow the government to preserve the encryption key.  While domestic privacy champions provided a substantial bulwark against implementation of key escrows, the Clinton administration began to implement escrows on exports.  Similar furor fumed over encryption export controls,  and in 1999, the White House eventually removed most all restrictions on the export of retail encryption products.

Since the Crypto Wars ended, an encryption-enabled ecosystem has developed to support applications from electronic banking to home automation systems, making  strong encryption essential to the overall security of the modern network.

But in the wake of the disclosures about government surveillance by Edward Snowden, more privacy advocates and technology companies have begun to adopt even greater encryption to guard their personnel or proprietary information from unwanted intrusion – a move the government has not welcomed because encryption makes surveillance significantly more difficult. 

TAKE AWAY:  With encryption under threat, government has revived many of the arguments it used in the 1990s to support key escrow,  “seeming to have forgotten the lessons of the past,” the authors argue. “We may once again be on the verge of another war: a Crypto War 2.0. But it would be far wiser to maintain the peace than to begin a new and unnecessary conflict.”

GET MORE: Read the full report here.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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