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Communications of the ACM

Privacy and security

Encryption and Surveillance

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Credit: Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

Is the increasing use of encryption an impediment in the fight against crime or an essential tool in the defense of personal privacy, intellectual property, and computer security? On the one hand, law-enforcement (LE) agencies complain about "going dark." On the other hand, computer-security experts warn that forcing law-enforcement access (LEA) features into devices or protocols would impose high costs and create unacceptable risks.

This argument echoes the 1990s "crypto war" about whether strong encryption technology that had been tightly regulated during the Cold War should only have been deregulated if vendors provided "key-escrow" features that prevented criminals from using it with impunity. The opponents of key escrow won that war by convincing the government that key escrow was difficult to implement securely and that foreign competitors of U.S. technology companies could gain an advantage by assuring customers that no third parties would have access to their keys.


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