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The Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, September 24, 1997

If cops can read E-mail, so can the bad guys

by Andy Riga, ariga@thegazette.southam.ca

Personal information about you is on the agenda today as experts from around the world begin a three-day conference in Montreal about protecting privacy in the age of the Internet.

But if you're really worried about privacy on the Net, keep your eye on Washington this week.

A battle royal is shaping up there over a U.S. congressional proposal to further clamp down on encryption, the process of rendering digital information like E-mail, business documents, and cellular-phone conversations incomprehensible except to those with passwords or special software "keys".

The debate will be U.S.-centred, but as in all things Internet, U.S. policy will affect everybody. Some argue the outcome of the encryption battle in Washington will ultimately affect your right to send private E-mail.

Encryption products are increasingly being used to protect E-mail and online commercial transactions from eavesdropping. But the technology's future hasn't really been decided yet, and the debate over restricting its use won't be settled any time soon.

The U.S. has already imposed limits on American companies that sell encryption products on the world market. Now, some U.S. legislators want to limit the power of such products domestically.

They hope to make it easy for agencies like the FBI to crack into information travelling on the Internet. They're spurred on by law-enforcement agencies that claim unbreakable codes create opportunities for criminals and terrorists to use the Net to hatch plots.

On the other side are high-technology companies, Internet activists, privacy advocates, telephone companies, and business groups. They argue secure transmissions are needed to ensure that rights aren't trampled on and that companies can interact securely without fear of snooping rivals.

After all, if police get a back door through which to access encrypted E-mail and documents, what would stop a canny crook from sneaking in?

Already angry about the export restrictions, opponents worry domestic anti-encryption rules in the U.S. would hamper the growth of electronic commerce (computerized communication that allows companies to interact electronically, reducing processing time and paperwork). High-technology companies expect to cash in big time if electronic commerce really takes off.

The fight against the proposal is heating up, and the Web is the battlefield, much as it was during the fight against the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which aimed to restrict objectionable material on the Net.

Last week, activists upset by the anti-encryption plan showed how easy it is to tap into personal communications when they posted a transcript of dozens of pager messages sent to U.S. President Bill Clinton's Secret Service detail (http://www.inch.com/~esoteric/pam_suggestion/formal.html).

Taking a more diplomatic route, a Who's Who of Silicon Valley tried to cajole Clinton at a San Francisco fundraising dinner Saturday night.

You might think the U.S. debate over encryption won't affect Canada. Electronic Frontier Canada, a group fighting for privacy and against censorship on the Internet, begs to differ.

In a policy statement released last month (http://www.efc.ca/pages/crypto/policy.html), EFC says encryption policies around the world will be influenced by the stance taken by the U.S.

It argues convincingly that restrictions on the use of strong encryption products don't make sense. "There is a far greater risk to individuals, businesses, and the government if we are unable to effectively prevent criminals from gaining unauthorized access to our records and communications."

Groups fighting the congressional proposal have posted background information about cryptography and why you should care. Check out the Centre for Democracy and Technology (http://www.cdt.org/crypto) or the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (http://www.epic.org/crypto). For a balanced look at the issue, the Washington Post's coverage is online (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/analysis/encryption/encrypt.htm).

While politicians, activists, academics and business people bicker about encryption, a lot of personal information is becoming freely available on the Internet, leading to fears about privacy.

If you use the Net and are concerned about keeping your private life out of public view, I'd recommend a new book: Web Psychos, Stalkers, and Pranksters (Coriolis Group Books, $34.99).

Despite the ominous, sensationalistic title, it's an excellent resource, showing you the tools savvy surfers can use to dig up information about you and offering practical tips on how to protect personal information and avoid becoming an online target.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers another useful backgrounder on privacy in cyberspace (http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs18-cyb.html).


Copyright © 1997 by The Montreal Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.