Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition

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Encryption

Have you ever purchased something over the Internet, done your banking online, or transferred medical records through a website? How confident are you that these transactions are secure? With growing globalization of the Web, the ability to transfer sensitive information securely from one computer to another is critical. Consider, for example, the personal data that you provide when you purchase something online. E-commerce sites often require a credit card number, an address, a telephone number, an e-mail address, and additional marketing information such as age, sex, income, or interests. But who has access to these data? Secure sites protect this personal information through cryptography. The basic ideas of cryptography originated before Roman times: Caesar coded his communications using a simple alphabet code. Today, encryption, a type of cryptography, is used to scramble and encode messages sent through the Internet. Once encrypted, these messages can be deciphered only by using a key, or translator. The goal of encryption is to maximize Web security so that no one except the intended recipient can access the transferred material.

Powerful encryption technology may improve online consumers' confidence, but many people fear that sophisticated encryption can also help criminals, hackers, spies, and terrorists if they have access to it. The U.S. government, for example, imposes certain restrictions on the export of encryption technology, and some officials lobby for regulations that would limit the strength of encryption technology products within the United States. In the 1990s, the FBI supported a policy that required citizens to surrender deciphering keys upon request. The government could also gain access to secure information through "back doors," which bypass the need for a deciphering key in order to access secure data. Privacy advocates protest against such encryption restrictions.

They argue that the government's attempt to monitor encryption technology is Orwellian in nature. In addition, they feel that back doors open up secure sites for hackers, and that powerful encryption helps keep confidential information out of the hands of criminals.

The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, forced the encryption debate into the limelight. Undoubtedly, communication was key for the synchronization and execution of the attacks. The terrorist organization may have communicated electronically by using encryption or hiding their messages in images, and the United States failed to intercept and decipher this information. While it is not productive to speculate as to whether access to encryption keys and improved ability to decipher codes could have changed the events of September 11, 2001, it is important to deliberate as to what type of control the government should have, if any, over encrypted communication.

 
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