September 18, 2001 10:35 AM PDT

U.S. citizens back encryption controls

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Privacy vs. safety

September 17, 2001
LONDON--A poll in the United States has found widespread support for a ban on "uncrackable" encryption products, following proposals in Congress to tighten restrictions on software that scrambles electronic data.

The survey found that 72 percent of Americans believe that anti-encryption laws would be "somewhat" or "very" helpful in preventing a repeat of last week's terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates on Sept. 13 and 14, reveals that the question of banning encryption tools without "backdoors" for government interception is under serious debate in the United States.

Congress was quick to blame sophisticated encryption methods for the massive intelligence failure last week and is proposing that government officials should have backdoor access to encryption products to aid national security.

The Princeton survey found that more than half of the American public would support anti-encryption laws to aid law enforcement surveillance powers. Only 9 percent of those questioned believed that tighter encryption restrictions would not prevent similar terrorist attacks in the future.

But privacy groups have accused Congress of political and economic opportunism--influencing public opinion while the nation is still coming to terms with last week's unprecedented events.

"No one should ever trust figures collected in the aftermath of a disaster; people are confused and emotional and will be led easily by imagery," said Simon Davies, director of human-rights group Privacy International. "It would be extremely irresponsible to shape public policy in response to a tragedy."

In the United Kingdom, the Home Office is scheduled this winter to enforce the final stages of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which will grant law enforcement the power to demand decryption keys from the place where data is encrypted. Privacy groups are concerned that Britain's enthusiasm for a unilateral global approach toward surveillance could re-energize the key escrow debate. Key escrow is a controversial mechanism whereby individuals and businesses must lodge a decryption key with a government-appointed body in case law-enforcement officials need to decrypt the data.

"I expect that the U.K. government will do everything in its power to claw back the ground that they lost in the public debate over RIPA," Davies said. "If it means subverting and amending legislation, the Home Office will propose this, and it will go through Parliament on the nod. Such a move would be a travesty and subvert the democratic process."

Staff writer Wendy McAuliffe reported from London.

 

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