The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, August 6, 1997

It's the law vs. privacy in high-tech debate

Secret codes are contentious issue as study begins

by Charles Enman

Walk by a friend's scanner and you're apt to hear the voice of some hapless cell-phone user blaring over the loudspeaker. Private, cell phones ain't.

E-mails should reach only the eyes of their intended recipients, but this nice notion is often breached.

Sophisticated cryptography could turn into garble any messages read by anyone but the person to whom they were sent.

But that same technology could allow terrorists and other criminals to communicate among themselves with impunity if encoded messages could not even be read by the police.

That and other cryptography issues are being studied by several federal departments under the leadership of Industry Canada.

"We're simply in the information-gathering stage", James Ladouceur, an Industry Canada policy adviser, said yesterday.

"It's a complex issue, especially in the area of electronic commerce", Mr. Ladouceur said.

Privacy of communication will be all-important, Mr. Ladouceur said, if businesses and consumers are to increase use of the Internet for business transactions.

But the most contentious issue the committee will face is apt to be "key recovery" -- that is, the right of access to the numeric "keys" that unlock the secret codes that protect communications and business transactions.

In the United States, this issue has placed the FBI and the National Security Administration in opposition to advocates of the right to privacy. The law-enforcement agencies want the right of access to encryption keys so that communications among criminals can be intercepted. The U.S. Congress has not resolved the issue.

Canadian law officials share the concerns of their U.S. counterparts.

In August 1995, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police urged the government to pass laws that would allow them to make "court-authorized interceptions" of telecommunication messages.

In other words, to have the same access to e-mail, say, that wiretap authorizations give them to conventional telephone conversations.

At least one group hopes that law officials don't get that kind of power in Canada.

"The police should not have access to encryption keys", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group of several hundred members formed more than three years ago to promote the right to privacy on the Internet.

"It would be unfortunate if we sacrificed the privacy of 30 million Canadians just for the occasional need to listen in on a few criminals."

In fact, giving police the right of access to encryption keys could reduce the security of encryption in business transactions. "And what would happen then?" Dr. Jones asked. "The 'bad guys' could listen in, and the policy could lead to more crime, not less."

Dr. Jones believes the government has little real need to intercept private communications.

"It's always possible to dream up a scenario in which law officials benefit from intercepting communications between terrorists or other criminals. But how often does this happen? The government should give the relevant numbers if they want to justify compromising something as basic as the right to privacy."

Industry Canada's Mr. Ladouceur says the committee hears the positions of many groups, and those of Electronic Frontier Canada are only one in a broad spectrum.

"They have a viewpoint, but by no means the only one."

By late fall or early next year, the committee will release recommendations for a new Canadian cryptography policy.


Copyright © 1997 by All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.