Secure communicationU.S., too, uneasy with encrypted communication

Published 16 August 2010

The U.S. said it hoped RIM and foreign governments would find a compromise over BlackBerry encryption, but successive U.S. administrations tried to limit the export of encrypted technologies so U.S. spy agencies would have unfettered access to government and private communications abroad; until 1996 encryption at the level commonly in use today was classified by U.S. export regulations as “munitions”

The U.S. State Department has waded into the issue of the efforts by foreign government to ban some of BlackBerry services, saying it hopes to broker a compromise that addresses the legitimate security concerns of some governments while ensuring that the free flow of information is not compromised.

Yahoo! Finance notes that this is ironic, considering the United States restricts exports of encryption technology. The restrictions are light, but were quite comprehensive before 1999. The United States was concerned that it could not easily spy on foreign countries that used encryption for military and government communications.

Until 1996 encryption at the level commonly in use today was classified as “munitions.” Companies that exported Web browsers and other software products had to make alternative versions with much weaker encryption for use abroad.

The First Amendment made it impossible to restrict encryption technology inside the United States, but the Clinton administration still tried to get the industry to adopt the “Clipper Chip,” a device that would encrypt communications but leave a “backdoor” for the government to decrypt messages. The idea led to a public outcry and had technical shortcomings, and it was ultimately abandoned.

Yahoo! Finance writes that with the rise of the Internet as a consumer medium in the 1990s, encryption became a household technology. It became clear that restricting the use of tough encryption only to U.S. Internet users was not feasible.

Still, when the Clinton administration relaxed export controls, it was over the objections of its attorney general and FBI director.

The relaxation of export restrictions in 1999 was not the end of the debate, either. Two days after the 9/11 attacks, Senator Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire), called for a global prohibition on encryption products that did not have backdoors for government surveillance; he was reviving the “Clipper Chip” idea.

In 2003 the Justice Department circulated draft legislation that would lengthen prison sentences for people who used encryption in the commission of a crime. Encryption defenders said it would do little to help catch terrorists, and it went nowhere.

Since then the U.S. government has more or less accepted that encryption is here to stay. Wholesale access by law enforcement to encrypted communications may not be possible, but BlackBerry e-mails are decrypted at the corporate servers, and can be obtained from there with a warrant.

Gmail connections are encrypted, but the messages are in the clear on Google’s servers, and Google cooperates with law enforcement. Intercepting Skype is trickier because the audio and video conversations are not stored, but security experts say there are ways to deal with this.

Yahoo! Finance notes that then, there is always human error. The alleged Russian spy ring that was arrested in the New York area in June used encryption, but one of them also left a password lying on his desk, where it was found by FBI agents who broke in. That enabled them to decrypt hundreds of messages.

RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, does not have years to wait for foreign governments to adopt the more relaxed U.S. stance toward encryption. It has until the end of the month to comply with orders from Indian government, and it may have no way to do so short of shutting down service in the country.

The RIM system does not seem to be designed to give a backdoor to anyone, not even to those in the company, said Maribel Lopez, a technology analyst and consultant. “It’s not like RIM is sitting there with everybody’s keys looking at everybody’s stuff,” she said. That does not give them much leeway in dealing with governments that want keys. “This is actually a bit of disaster for them right now because there doesn’t seem to be any good compromising midpoint,” Lopez said.