No Soup for You

If you try to get everything you want, you just might find you can’t even get what you need. In fact, this may be the final lesson from the government’s decade-long battle to stop strong encryption.

Starting all the way back in the Bush Administration (what Republicans would call the “first” Bush Administration) the government has been trying unsuccessfully to keep the secrets of encryption secret.

The Clinton Administration has delivered such follies as the attempted martyrdom of Phil Zimmerman, the Clipper Chip, “key escrow” and export controls on strong (128-bit) encryption software. Along the way we ceded much of the encryption market to Israeli and even Swedish companies, and U.S. market leaders moved some operations offshore to protect their markets.

In the latest twist, the Justice Department this month offered Congress a new proposal. When it gets a warrant to seize a computer, Justice now wants the encryption keys too. When it seeks a wiretap, it wants power to decrypt the alleged criminal’s files and transmissions.

On the surface, this sounds reasonable. When the cops bring a search warrant to your door, it doesn’t matter if your papers are in a locked safe- they can search it. Only a few dozen wiretap orders are signed each year. The agency argues why they should be flouted by the equivalent of electronic lock boxes: “Justice is not looking for any more authority than it already has in obtaining evidence,” an administration spokesman told mildly.

After years of fighting overly broad government efforts on the issue, however, opponents are cutting Justice no slack. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) immediately sounded the alarm.

“This strikes at the heart of the Bill of Rights,” said David L. Sobel, EPIC’s General Counsel, in his press release. “It would be truly ironic if the use of encryption-which is designed to protect privacy-gave the police a green light to secretly break into homes.”

At first blush I wasn’t certain where to stand. I was reminded of a story-perhaps apocryphal-in which the CIA changed Clinton’s mind on encryption by giving him a full report on what foreign leaders and America’s foes were thinking (let him enjoy it), then stated that with encryption that report would no longer exist. History records that our ability to decrypt Hitler’s messages helped win World War II.

On the other hand, like most people, I want the right to be left alone. I don’t want anyone-especially the government-reading my private papers. I don’t like to think they could read my “locked” papers without even breaking down my door. If I had any secrets worth keeping, I’d expect the right to keep them. The mere suspicion in someone’s mind that my keeping secrets meant I was bad would anger me no end.

Given recent history, most of us are now inclined to believe EPIC rather than Justice, and that’s my point. When you demand too much, you just might end up with nothing. Remember that the next time you enter a negotiation.

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