CNet News Briefs
Monday, April 20, 1998

Encryption regulation pointless, experts say

by Nathan Arnold, n@mhpublishing.com

Government regulation of encryption software will stifle a burgeoning Canadian software industry, limit personal freedom, and be impossible to enforce, a group of cryptography experts told the federal government today.

"Cryptography is essential for the transition to a wired society", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada. "It is the key, enabling technology that will allow Canadians to keep our personal information and communications private without fear of eavesdropping, as well as safeguard the security of our online transactions, without fear of fraud. If the government places restriction on the use of cryptography, it would do more harm than good."

Jones delivered recommendations to Industry Canada today from 14 cryptography experts who oppose government regulation of cryptography.

The letters are in response to a document released by Industry Canada on Feb. 23 entitled A Cryptography Policy Framework for Electronic Commerce: Building Canada's Information Economy and Society.

Encryption is a technology that employs complex mathematical algorithms to encode data. It provides consumers and businesses a level of trust by securing sensitive information such as credit card numbers and cellular phone transmissions.

The Industry Canada document asked for public input into how Canada should develop laws regarding the encryption of stored information, information in transit and the export of encryption software. The government is concerned with how to best balance the interests of consumers, business, and law enforcement in its policies towards this emerging technology.

The deadline for recommendations is April 21.

"Cryptographic software and hardware has the potential to be a billion-dollar industry", said Jeff Shallit, vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada. "If Canada is to take part, it must ease its export restrictions, not strengthen them."

However, encryption has become a major concern for law enforcement officials. They are worried that encryption could be used by criminals and terrorists to hide information from authorities.

According to a spokesperson for the RCMP, the force will encourage the government to introduce stronger encryption regulations that will allow them access to encrypted material if needed.

An RCMP report detailed the police force's desire for access to encrypted material.

"We must be able to maintain our ability to investigate and prosecute criminal activity, which is increasingly facilitated by technology like cryptography, without curtailing the ability of law-abiding corporations and citizens to communicate and interact", the report said.

"The ability of the RCMP to collect evidence or prevent criminal offense will be severely impaired if we don't have access to (encrypted) information."

However, according to Shallit, police access to information can't be guaranteed even if encryption access laws are put into place.

He said free software is already available over the Internet that will allow anyone to communicate in private without risk of the authorities listening in.

"(With) material readily available in books and libraries everywhere, a high school student can write code that the RCMP can't break", said Shallit. "Given that a high school student can do it in an hour, what's the point? It would be trivial."

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