House bill causes controversy: privacy vs. security

Meghana Iragavarapu, Staff Writer

February 26, 2016

AES, DES, 3DES, RC2, RC6 and Blowfish.

These combinations of random numbers and letters are six of the most common encryption algorithms.

Everything from the data on SIM cards to your Guilford email is protected by encryption through the conversion of personal electronic data into ciphertext.

“Think about what all you do on your phone,” said Jay Musick ’15, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in computer technology and information systems. “Now, imagine it in the hands of someone else. Almost everyone relies on some form of encryption whether they realize it or not.”

Understanding the ubiquitous nature of encryption, Rep. Ted Lieu sponsored a House bill on Feb. 20 aiming to prevent state governments from making encryption illegal.

In essence, the bill protects encrypted technology from surveillance and attempts at decryption. The bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and has yet to receive a hearing date.

However, encryption presents a heated debate for lawmakers and technology companies.

“Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google, EFF, ACLU and RSA all are firmly on the side of encryption,” said Musick.

For the IT community at Guilford the legalization of encryption is seen as practical and inevitable.

“The idea of making encryption illegal is laughable considering most smartphones now include some level of encryption,” said IT&S Network Analyst Brian Evans. “Our Guilford email uses SSL encryption, so we use encryption daily.”

While encryption ensures protection of personal information from local and international hacking, it makes gathering information to ensure national security more difficult.

This conflicting drawback has been exemplified by Apple CEO Tim Cook’s refusal to follow a court order to break into an encrypted iPhone.

“Currently, Apple is refusing to bypass the security of the iPhone of San Bernardino Islamic terrorist, Syed Farook,” said Evans. “That could make Apple customers’ data vulnerable to theft.”

Nevertheless, the double-edged sword of encryption continually strikes lawmakers and law enforcers.

“Police everywhere are having a hard time keeping track of terrorists because modern phones, including the iPhone, make it easier than ever to communicate privately,” said reporter Jose Pagliery in a CNN article.

The dispute now revolves around prioritizing either national security or personal privacy.

“Anything we can do to prevent acts of terrorism, we ought to do it,” said Assistant Professor of Political Science Robert Duncan. “What’s the big deal? As long as you are honest, and you are not doing anything illegal, what the hell?”

Yet, the uses of encryption are complex.

“Encryption is a tool,” said Evans. “It can be used for good or evil just like a car, chainsaw, ax or firearm. Millions of medical records are encrypted every day to protect patient privacy.  Unfortunately, that same encryption protocol can be used to hide terrorist communications or child pornography.”

As for the proposed bill, can 350 words encompass the multifaceted tool of encryption?

“We’re living in an age with people who are trying to pass laws on technology that they know how to work but do not know how it works,” said Advanced Placement United States history teacher Morris Johnson. “We are trying to pass laws at the local and national levels to deal with global issues.”

Internationally, countries including the United Kingdom and Iran extensively regulate encryption activity.

“An individual can do two years in prison for refusing to decrypt material for law enforcement in the UK,” said Evans. “Iran requires the submission of crypto algorithms, keys and information about ‘related parties’ to the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution.”

For a protection of business transactions and personal privacy, encryption seems to be indispensable.

“Many people go into law enforcement to catch the bad guys … that becomes much easier when one can see an entire population’s communication and zero in on people involved in illegal behavior,” said Evans.

“We in the IT community want to protect the population’s communication to prevent criminals from intercepting that communication and using it for illegal gain, such as identity theft.”

Nationally, the fate of encryption depends on a belief in tit-for-tat.

“The NSA, Homeland Security, the FBI, they would do it (encrypt) anyway, because they are sworn to protect the people of this country,” said Duncan. “Every other country on the face of the earth is involved in spying, stealing secrets and trying to break our codes.

“Where is the quid pro quo? If they are going to do it, we damn well better do it too, or we are going to end up getting screwed.”

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