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Encryption – blessing or curse?

Encryption is shaping up to be one of the great philosophical debates of the technological era. It’s become a proxy for a wider debate about the rights of citizens, and the balance between liberty and security. The debate, and the issues, are real. But encryption is the wrong target. All we’re seeing is yet more evidence that after 34 years the government has no idea how to adapt to the era of personal computing.


What do you need to build ‘unbreakable’ encryption?

Why do we say this? Because once again we’re seeing attempts by various governments to force technology companies to adopt weak encryption. They might even succeed. This would mean much greater risk of card fraud, identity theft and cyber-crime in general, but that’s justified in the name of national security, isn’t it?

This would be true if the only way hackers could get their hands on decent encryption is by buying it from a tech major.


What do you need to build ‘unbreakable’ encryption? A computer of some description, a compiler and a modicum of coding skill. You don’t even need to do it from scratch – there’s plenty of open-source libraries out there; you mostly need the skill to make sure those libraries aren’t themselves back-doored. Even if you suppressed those ready-made resources (which would be a huge blow to tech progress), encryption is just an aspect of applied mathematics – do we really think hacking groups have no access to competent mathematicians? Who invented modern maths anyway?

The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether giving up the commercial and privacy advantages of encryption is worth it to catch the criminals who are too lazy to work around the restrictions. It seems likely that if they’re that inept, they’ll expose themselves in other ways too, without us having to accept that any half-competent cyber-criminal can read our emails.


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