Often Technology, Not Politics, Drives Policy Changes

from the technology-matters dept

Computer science professor Matt Blaze critiques a recent New Yorker profile of Michael McConnell, the man who is leading the Bush administration’s charge for more warrantless wiretapping powers. I hadn’t realized until I read Blaze’s post that McConnell was also responsible for the clipper chip, a hardware crypto device from the early 1990s that would have given the government a “backdoor” to intercept encrypted communications. The New Yorker profile suggests that the clipper chip was killed by political pressures, but the reality was rather different. The decisive blow against the chip was Blaze himself, who discovered and published major security flaws in the chip’s algorithms in 1994. Even if Blaze hadn’t found those flaws when he did, the more fundamental problem was that the clipper chip relied on the fact that computers weren’t yet fast enough to do secure crypto in software at reasonable speeds. But as Moore’s law continued to improve the power of desktop computers, hardware crypto acceleration became unnecessary. And because it’s a lot harder to stop the spread of software than of hardware, government officials realized that they no longer had any hope of limiting who would have access to the technology.

This may be a reason not to be too pessimistic about the long-term outcome of the FISA debate. While it looks likely that Congress will capitulate to the president and grant him broader wiretapping powers, peoples’ privacy is likely to be driven more by technological changes (say, the availability of encrypted VoIP software on cell phones) than the exact rules regarding when warrants are required. It remains to be seen whether technological progress will strengthen the government’s eavesdropping capabilities faster than it strengthens individuals’ ability to evade it, but either way, policymakers’ choices will continue to be sharply constrained by changes in technology.

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Comments on “Often Technology, Not Politics, Drives Policy Changes”

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Kevin says:

Somewhat bad example

I think it’s a bad example to use “encrypted VoIP on cellphones” as a case of people circumventing government wiretapping. Why? Because the carriers can lock down the cellphones and allow/disallow any applications that they want. The carriers are the same people who allowed US Government to participate in (potentially illegal) surveillance via warrantless wiretapping. All it takes is a letter from the AG and the carriers will roll over.

Sure, if you have the time and technical know-how you can “unlock” your phone or find some way to hack it so that you can load your own applications on it. But the people who can or do do that represent probably less than 1% of the market. Not only that, but I doubt that it would take much persuading from the government to convince the carriers to claim some sort of IP violation against people who do. Or more likely, for congress to pass a law outlawing such tinkering. So now you can be a criminal for wanting privacy.

Tim Lee (user link) says:

Re: Somewhat bad example

That’s true now. But I think there’s a clear trend toward more openness in cell phones. Between Android, the forthcoming iPhone SDK, and the new spectrum auctions, I don’t think it’ll be too long before consumers will be able to easily purchase open mobile devices that can interface with major wireless networks.

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