Technology drives our society and facilitates just about everything we do. Communications greatly depend on it, and without it, our lives would be dramatically different — certainly less convenient. But, as we've seen all too clearly recently, the sophistication of our technology can also be used against us.
Two years ago, there was heavy debate over whether makers of encryption software should be obliged to provide law enforcement with the keys to open encrypted messages. At the time, the government decided to permit export of encryption software without requiring key codes, sending the issue into hibernation. The debate was awakened on Sept. 11, however, and it hasn't slept since.
Osama bin Laden and his cohorts have been known to use encryption and steganography (a method by which private messages can be embedded in seemingly innocuous cover messages) to relay information. And it is quite probable that such technologies provided the communications track for his terrorist train to travel on in what would result in the most tragic attack on the United States to date. This brings this debate to a boil.
Advocates of key escrows believe that giving government the keys could help curb terrorists before they strike. Those who oppose it, however, oppose it strongly; they say that because foreign encryption software is available, mandates would be unenforceable and misguided. If the United States restricts the software, they say, terrorists will turn to unrestricted varieties. And, if keys fall into the wrong hands, private citizens' information could become freely available, including bank accounts, medical records, and private business information. Then lies the fact that encryption exists in more abstract forms as well — speech, for example. The White House recently asked networks to use caution when airing Osama bin Laden's videotaped messages because of suspicions that he is using American television to send coded messages. The suspicion is based on hunch and common sense, an administration official said, because bin Laden's language is filled with flowery, fuzzy images.
So, what, say you technologists, should come of the issue? Would you support or oppose government regulations on encryption keys? Do you think encryption technologies empowered these terrorists? Would key escrows prevent them from carrying out another attack? Or would restrictions be an infringement on our rights to privacy in an undeniably technological age of information?