The Globe & Mail
Saturday, July 25, 1998
page D6

It should be legit to computer encrypt

Privacy Commissioner is right: police don't need a key to your computer

News Item: Parliament approved legislation yesterday that assists police in tracking down crimes committed or planned over the telephone. "For too long, we have used the excuse of secrecy to let phone-crime go unpunished", said the solicitor-general in a prepared statement. "Today, we are entering a new era of phone security."

Under the new law, all telephonic conversations would have to be carried out in one of Canada's two official languages. Police say this is the only way they can ensure that illegal conversations can be overheard and dealt with quickly.

"I know some Canadians will find these rules inconvenient", said the commissioner of the RCMP. "But a little inconvenience is the price we pay for eliminating crime." The police chief pointed to the success of legislation enacted last year, which requires all Canadian homes to be equipped with locks that can be opened by a special police key. "Police sometimes need to get into homes quickly", said the RCMP chief. "And they sometimes need to understand what you are saying on the telephone."

In a related story, two 11-year-olds were arrested yesterday for writing letters in pig-Latin. "They're first time offenders so we won't be laying charges", said Constable Terry Snoop of Winnipeg RCMP. "But the principle they violated is sacrosanct: communications that cannot easily be opened and read by law-enforcement officials are illegal. Everyone knows that."

The above tale is obviously fictional. Forcing people to converse only in languages police can understand? Giving law enforcement officials the keys to every house? Arresting children for sending messages to one another in code? Imagine the laughter that would greet such proposals: the official advancing the idea would immediately find himself undergoing psychological examination.

But change the object of regulation and watch what happens. As Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips noted earlier this week, when law-enforcement officials in Canada and the United States recommend police-state tactics for computer communications, legislators start listening.

Computer messages -- covering everything from buying a book by credit card over the Internet to sending E-mail -- are generally encrypted. That means they are hidden in a code only the sender and the recipient can understand. If they're not, it's a bit like giving out your credit card number on an open party line.

However, the FBI and some options in a recent Industry Canada discussion paper argue that unbreakable encryption can thwart legitimate police activity. Even if police secure a warrant to tap someone's E-mail, they may not be able to understand encrypted messages. The solution: restrict the right of computer users to send messages in codes that the police cannot break.

The suggestion, however much police may like it, is both offensive and unworkable. Such proposals undermine the security of Internet commerce and they violate fundamental freedoms. Police have, upon the presentation of evidence and with the approval of a judge, the power to bug someone's phone or computer. They don't have a right to force anyone to speak in a tongue they understand. Not on the phone, not in a letter, not by E-mail.

Copyright © 1998 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.