DEBATE WORKSHOPS 2000

Resolved: That the United States federal government should significantly increase protection of privacy in the United States in one or more of the following areas:

EMPLOYMENT, MEDICAL RECORDS, CONSUMER INFORMATION, SEARCH AND SEIZURE.


Case #3: Repeal laws that centralize and universalize government data collection

Case #1: 
Repeal laws that centralize and universalize government data collection


Case #2:
 Privatize Social Security


Case #3: Deregulate strong encryption


Case#4:
Protecting Medical Privacy with Medical IRAs


Encryption is a method of encoding almost any kind of data that is transmitted electronically so that only the intended recipient can read the data. Cryptography -the science of encryption- has been used to encode and decode secret messages during wartime. Modern versions of encryption and high-speed computers make possible the secure encoding of e-mail, voice and -within a few years- even video output in real time. These advances don't prevent transmitted information from being intercepted -which is nearly impossible to do- but they do enable a high degree of privacy for the messages exchanged.

Encryption uses mathematical algorithms that substitute strings of numbers for bits of information. Decryption of the information requires a mathematical key. The more digits used to encrypt each unit of information, the harder the information will be to decrypt by anyone who does not have the key to do so (i.e. anyone but the intended recipient). Thus, "strong encryption" is encryption that uses many digits to encode a given piece of information and is the way to achieve the greatest amount of privacy when communicating over wires or radio frequencies.

The government has attempted to regulate strong encryption out of concern that criminal activities might be coordinated under cover of encryption that was sophisticated enough to prevent law enforcement from capturing the criminals or preventing the crime. Although the courts have protected software makers' rights to produce software that utilizes strong encryption, the government has succeeded in banning the export of software that uses strong encryption. Since many companies cannot afford to produce two versions of their software -a strong version for the domestic market and a weaker version for the foreign market- they produce one weaker version that will sell on both markets. In this way, the government has had some success in limiting the spread of strong encryption.

Of course, our government cannot prevent people in other countries from producing strong encryption products, and some of the best encryption technology comes from Europe, South Africa, and Scandinavia. This means that anyone who has enough interest in obtaining the best privacy may do so fairly easily. Those with a strong interest in keeping their communications private -especially those fearing prosecution for serious crimes or acts of terrorism- would be foolish to bother with weak encryption software. Government regulation of strong encryption keeps it out of the hands of ordinary, law-abiding citizens without reducing crime or terrorism.

This logic is difficult to escape. So why has the government been so persistent in continuing to regulate strong encryption? One possible answer is that while regulation fails to achieve the avowed goal of aiding law enforcement agents, it does increase the state's capacity to monitor communications of ordinary citizens. It is difficult for even basically law-abiding citizens not to run afoul of the government at one time or another. Secure telecommunications allows people to express unpopular political views without fear of reprisal, to protect their freedom of association from would-be intruders (including those who justify such intrusion in the name of the public interest), and to engage in mutually beneficial exchanges that harm no one but do not conform to the government's idea of acceptable behavior. All of these activities should be protected in a free society, but all are activities that government has a vested interest in controlling, either directly or through the intimidation that comes from the fear of surveillance.

In the final analysis, any imbalance in the capacity to monitor others which favors the state over the average citizen is an open invitation for abuse. Even imbalances that are justified as means to laudable ends are vulnerable to corruption for the very fact that it is the corrupt who have the most to gain from holding an informational advantage. Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek's famous article "Why the Worst Get on Top"12 makes a compelling case for the inevitability of corruption when the power of the state is not strictly limited by the rights of individuals.

Economist David Friedman makes a fascinating case that the spread of strong encryption will produce a radically freer society as technological advancement enables more and more social and economic interaction to occur online.13 He predicts that free association and free markets will become harder to control and regulate, while the average person's capacity to protect himself from crime or other intrusions on her rights will increase as a result of stronger, more versatile forms of encryption. The link between economic freedom and quality of life at all levels of society has been powerfully documented historically and through modern international statistical comparisons. As with Social Security privatization, the constraints this plan would place on government's ability to overreach its proper role produce powerful economic advantages and a great increase in personal freedom and autonomy.

Author: David Beers

See also: David Brin's The Transparent Society for detailed and skeptical discussion of strong encryption.

Questions and comments welcome: Send to adc@mackinac.org

 

 
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