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Zimmermann defends strong crypto against govt assault

Backdoors are 'worse than futile'

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Strong cryptography does more good for society than harm and placing backdoors in encryption products to allow law enforcement access to plain text messages would be "worse than futile", encryption guru Phil Zimmermann told The Register today.

Zimmermann, the creator of the popular email encryption package PGP, told us that reversing the policy of allowing strong cryptography "under the terrible emotional pressure" created by the September 11 atrocities would be a "mistake".

The possibility that terrorists might use potentially unbreakable encryption was considered when legislation on ecommerce was formulated in the 1990s, and it recognised that the need to protect ecommerce came before law enforcement concerns. Encryption products with backdoor access are inherently less secure.

"I'm not insensitive to the downside of the technology" said Zimmermann. "But if you impose controls on encryption, the bad guys won't use products featuring backdoor cryptographic access."

Like Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security, Zimmermann argues that the ability of law enforcement to read anyone's email is unlikely to help the authorities to prevent terrorism. For one thing, Zimmermann (or us for that matter) haven't seen any evidence that the September 11 hijackers used encryption.

Zimmermann thought that investigative tools, conventional policing and (not least) the ability to translate documents in Arabic would be a better focus for counter-terrorism efforts. Mass surveillance through the ability to tap anyone's email isn't the answer.

"Governments are not making a case for encryption controls, because they are not making use of the intelligence they already have," said Zimmermann, who said a convincing case that encryption control would have averted disaster is yet to be made.

Last month, the Washington Post carried at article which incorrectly reported Zimmermann was "overwhelmed with feelings of guilt" over the use of PGP by suspected terrorists. Zimmermann has written a response to this article, which you can read in full here. He believes the misrepresentation of his views in the Washington Post article was the result of an "honest misunderstanding" by the paper. ®

Related Stories

Bruce Schneier on crypto, the FBI, privacy and more
Americans want Uncryption
Broader surveillance won't prevent terrorism -Schneier

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