By Chris Barts
Every day, letters are sent worldwide with methods taken to ensure the relative secrecy of the contents. The method most used is an envelope, and it imparts security not only from its opaqueness, but from its tamper-resistance. Letters are also sent without such precautions, most of them postcards, but the bulk is in envelopes. Why do we use envelopes? Do we all have something to hide? Are we all criminals?
Of course not. We use envelopes because we value our privacy, and even mundane things deserve to be kept away from prying eyes. Since that is true, why are millions of e-mail messages sent every day without any privacy measures being taken?
Last week, I explained the concept of online communications, how groups of ones and zeros are sent as groups over the phone lines. Packets, as those groups are called, carry information, and most are not secure. In most cases, this lack of security is not a problem. Actual cases of people intercepting transmissions are rare, and very few people are both malicious and clever enough to do damage with that information. Even so, encryption should become as standard as putting mail in envelopes and locking our doors.
Encryption is the use of mathematics to make programs that encode a message so well no unauthorized party could decrypt the message in a reasonable amount of time. Successful encryption methods yield results so well encrypted it would take supercomputers thousands of years to read the message using brute-force algorithms. Brute-Force' refers to a system where all possible answers are tried until a correct one is found. It is akin to randomly pushing buttons on a phone until you get the pizza delivery place on the line.
The government wants to weaken encryption, claiming a "threat to national security." Obviously not the case, but the government is nothing if not persistent. One of the most threatening measures to be proposed as a possible law is the trusted third party' concept. In this system, everyone would have to give the government the ability to decrypt all of their encrypted files. Not doing so would result in prosecution, using the old if you aren't a criminal you wouldn't value privacy' fallacy. This only violates the Fourteenth Amendment (protection against unlawful search and seizure), so the government must think it makes sense.
Luckily, anyone can get good encryption software online. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a strong encryption program, is available to anyone for free. PGP is only the most visible and among the most secure of a range of encryption programs available, some of them free and some of them sold.
Encryption should become more a part of the average user's computing practice. It allows peace of mind, it can be used to authenticate messages, making digital contracts possible, and it is every human's right.
The right to privacy is precious.