Government's long arm and peering eyes have no business extending their influence to something as fundamental to IT and e-business security as encryption, according to the results of a recent searchSecurity poll and the pointed opinions of a half-dozen site users.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) recently urged Congress to adopt legislation that would require encryption software developers to leave a back door open for government when matters of national security arise. More than 400 searchSecurity users said those calls for legislation do not stand a chance of making it into law.
Close to half of the 421 who voted (41%) said that Gregg's proposal was a knee-jerk reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Another 143 (31% of voters) went further, saying that Americans must stop these efforts at all costs. Ninety-seven (23%) were confident that the proposal could become law based on the supposition that people appear willing to give up personal liberties in times of crisis. Users were also given the option of voting "Don't know" and eight (2%) did so.
Encryption is used to safeguard everything from e-commerce Web sites, to messaging systems, to government, to the health care and financial industries. Banning strong encryption, or leaving backdoors open in the software, would create new security hazards, according to user Gene Lempp, a research specialist.
"Would it not then be possible for a hacker, or cracker, to gain access through that same backdoor? This is a totally unacceptable situation," Lempp said. "In my humble opinion, the government, regardless of how noble its reasons may be, should stay out of the business of dictating how corporations or private citizens use or design encryption software. This legislation must be stopped at all costs."
Sen. Gregg's proposal was prompted by reports that the terrorists who attacked America Sept. 11 used encrypted messages to coordinate their activities -- action that has not been confirmed. Civil libertarians have protested the legislation as an infringement on Americans' freedom while others simply fear the potential crippling effect on commerce.
"The encryption debate is not a new one in the United States. The government seems driven to have full control and access of both public and private systems, all in the name of national security and law enforcement," Lempp said. "Unfortunately, the main reason to use encryption software is to protect sensitive and precious data from prying eyes. Many corporations use this software to protect their intellectual property from the eyes of competitors and those nefarious individuals that would try to steal it and sell it to the highest bidder. Giving the government or anyone else an way in would be the equivalent to giving your safe code to a burglar, or social security card, drivers license, and credit card numbers to an identity thief.
Some users were scathing in their criticism of the proposal, taking note of the constant scrutiny of the government's security infrastructure from the General Accounting Office among other agencies.
"Until our government can follow proper security for its own sites, the thought of letting this elephant blunder through the business world freely is appalling," said searchSecurity user Rik Scott. "I would venture to guess that this is a tactic to defend the lack of information that allowed the disaster of Sept. 11 to happen. Backdoor code would be sold to the highest bidder within the month, crashing institutions, and markets wholesale. Put me down for "No!"
In the end, searchSecurity users and poll respondents believe that Americans would be the ultimate losers if encryption legislation makes it into law for several reasons, principal among them is the loss of civil liberties and availability of encryption software overseas giving criminals access to uncrackable code elsewhere.
"Take away (encryption) or weaken it for law-abiding citizens, and the criminals will get and use it anyway," said user Matt Nelson. "People fail to realize if you make more laws to suppress and protect, it is the law-abiding citizen who follows the rules, and the criminal who breaks those rules."
Adds user Karen Morris: "Of course the government is going to be allowed to do anything they think of under the guise of 'security' for the American people. Under the name of freedom, we're going to give up many of the freedoms that we've previously held and not appreciated. What a shame that our government will step in during a crisis and further their own agenda at home as well as abroad."