IT security to become political battleground

DRM and wire-tapping rise up the political agenda

RSA Security will re-emerge as a major arena for political debate over the next year, cryptography legend Whitfield Diffie predicted today.

The cryptographic community fought a long and ultimately successful battle to lift US export restrictions on encryption technology. The climax was a Clinton administration decision more than four years ago to relax controls.

Since then - aside from the ever-present debate about handing over cryptographic keys to law enforcement authorities - things have been a good deal quieter, at least intellectually.

Diffie, chief security officer at Sun Microsystems, forecasts that this will change in coming months. The political battle will spill over into two distinct technology fields.

Conflicting views about law enforcement requests to monitor voice over IP networks and over digital rights management (DRM) technology will re-energise IT politics, he said.

Extending wiretapping to VoIP is controversial because it "affects the architecture of networks of all kinds," according to Diffie.

And DRM is contentious because it extends to copyright holders control over end-user systems.

Diffie said the argument over DRM was complicated by its use in non-controversial applications. For example, DRM technology could be applied to verify that the configuration of a system hadn't been altered by hackers.

"A technology that attests to the configuration of a component in a dynamic network and says 'its safe for you to play' is of great security benefit. Whether it’s a technology you should force on consumers is far less clear," he said.

With legislation on spam on both sides of the Atlantic last year, politics has hardly disappeared from the IT industry. Diffie argues that these debates are not characterised by the real clash of competing philosophies which characterised the crypto export debate.

Diffie made his comments during a cryptography panel at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. ®

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