The Computer Corner
By Charles Miller
What do President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US FBI Director James B. Comey, and a jailed Brazilian financier all have in common? Probably a lot of things, but the answer I am thinking of is that they have all been in the news lately with regard to this thing called “encryption.”
There have been calls by lawmakers around the world to ban encryption. Perhaps I will not need to explain how ludicrous this idea is, or how uninformed the politicians think we are, if you can just understand what secure unbreakable encryption is. Encryption is math—a sophisticated form of mathematics to be sure, but all encryption is math. Cryptologists and mathematicians have perfected the methods in recent years and now anyone with sufficient training can do it. Encryption cannot be outlawed any more than it would be possible to ban addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. It is part of the body of human knowledge and cannot be un-invented any more than you can un-ring a bell.
In spite of this fact, politicians like David Cameron are calling for a ban on unbreakable encryption on devices sold in Britain. The French Parliament voted in favor of, but has yet to enact a new law that would jail tech execs who refuse to decrypt data. It is not clear how they plan to enforce these ideas that are technologically impossible. Once again, unbreakable encryption is a reality, and there is no putting that genie back in the bottle.
A case in point is the Brazilian banker Daniel Dantas. He may be a shady character, but he knows his encryption and he did everything right when protecting his personal data. When he was arrested in July 2008, the Brazilian National Institute of Criminology seized five encrypted hard disks then tried for five months to obtain access to the incriminating evidence they allegedly contained. When they failed, they sent the disks to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation where its code-breaker experts gave up after 12 months of efforts to crack the code. Back in Brazil, Dantas was eventually released from jail when Brazilian prosecutors could not obtain evidence of his financial shenanigans. He was later convicted and jailed for a lesser offense for which prosecutors did find evidence.
The failure by the FBI to crack that case is a topic subject to “no comment” today. It has, however, not stopped Director Comey from pushing the idea that encryption systems used by Apple and other companies need to have a “back door” built in so that law enforcement can bypass the encryption that users put in place. This will only lead to creating an underground black market of fully unbreakable encryption software.
And President Obama? Reportedly, and I am glad to say, that Blackberry he is sometimes seen talking into has its communications protected with secure unbreakable encryption.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.