The Government/Corporate Debate on Encryption: How Best to Spy on You
A debate, going on in the quasi-private and well-catered halls of government-corporate collusion, has reached the post-smoldering stage. It's now a virtual forest fire in full public view.
It pits government spies against corporate cannibals and is about the often misunderstood and somewhat tedious issue of encryption.
Like so many "raging debates" among the powerful, this one is more important to most of us not for what is being said but what is assumed.
To believe the corporate PR releases (and some media reports), the two sides are debating the balance between protecting our rights and protecting our lives.. In fact, the debate is more about how to effectively manage spying: the government says it wants companies to give it the codes to crack all encryption while the companies are devising ways to make sure the government has a court order, or inter-agency collaboration, before doing that.
Nobody is saying the obvious: cracking encryption to steal data is unconstitutional and illegal and this debate is taking place at a moment when massive movements of protest are convering the streets of our cities organized through social media and cell-phone communications. In a sense, this is the fight over how they'll cross the line we can't let them cross.
The term "encryption" is now ubiquitous. Most of us have heard it, many understand it in principle but few know much about.
Encryption, used for a very long time in secret communications, is the substitution of the letters and numbers in a message with other letters, numbers and symbols. That substitution "scrambles" the message making it impossible to read and appearing to be nonsense. You then use a "key" that relates every letter and number you're seeing to a real letter or number. When the key is applied, the intended message is readable.
That's how it works in war and espionage, on radios and pieces of paper. On computers, the key that you use can be very large and the scrambling can be insanely complex and multi-tiered.
If you use encrypted email, for example, people can't read your email without the key or without going through an enormous and lengthy process of expert decryption. Your data is not absolutely protected but it's extremely hard to read and very time-consuming to decipher.
Most people don't encrypt their email. In fact, gmail users will find it extremely difficult to use encryption because Google, other popular providers too, make it tough. This pleases the government because it is now collecting all data flowing across the Internet and is using powerful software to analyze that data, identify "suspect" content (applying a list of thousands of "trigger words" to the message content) and pulling data sent by individuals on their watch-lists. It's a spy's orgy.