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Clipper Chip Redux

Steven Levy writing on Backchannel:

Is it any wonder that the government is rebooting the crypto wars? For the first time, it’s really struggling with the results of the first war, as more information is now encrypted, increasingly in a manner the government finds really hard (or impossible) to decode.


As with the first round of the crypto wars, the stakes could not be higher. Once again, the government is seeking to control that genie first released by Diffie and Hellman. But the physics of computer security have not changed. Last July, a panel of fifteen eminent security specialists and cryptographers — many of whom are veterans of the first crypto war — released a report confirming there was no way for the government to demand a means of bypassing encryption without a dire compromise of security. It just doesn’t work.

The crypto wars, as Steven Levy calls them, are not new. In his excellent 2001 book Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government – Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, Levy recounted the struggle during the 90s between a small group academics who developed public key encryption and the US government, which was determined to outlaw encryption or mandate a back door. Sound familiar?

Memories are short, especially on the Internet. With the Department of Justice's insistence that Apple unlock a terrorist's iPhone, we are facing the same issues that were addressed in the 1990s. The difference is that the stakes are higher now. For individuals, there has never been more private data stored electronically, whether on a device like an iPhone or in the cloud. For governments, we have reached a point where some information is too hard, or impossible, for them to recover thanks to cryptography. As the struggle over the future of encryption plays out, it's useful to keep in mind the perspective of those like Levy who were there the first time around.