Home & Office

Americans support a ban on 'uncrackable' encryption

The US public would back a government ban on encryption products without 'back doors' in order to prevent another terrorist attack
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor on

A poll in the US has found widespread support for a ban on "uncrackable" encryption products, following US Congress proposals to tighter restrictions on software that scrambles electronic data.

Seventy-two percent of Americans believe that anti-encryption laws would be "somewhat" or "very" helpful in preventing a repeat of last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The poll, which was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates on 13 and 14 September, reveals that the question of banning encryption tools without "backdoors" for government interception is now a serious matter of debate in the US.

The US Congress was quick to blame sophisticated encryption methods for the massive intelligence failure last week, and is now proposing that government officials should have 'back door' access to encryption products to aid national security. The Princeton survey found that more than half of the American public (54 percent) would support anti-encryption laws in order to aid law enforcement surveillance powers. Only 9 percent of those questioned believed that tighter crypto restrictions would not prevent similar terrorist attacks in the future.

But privacy groups have accused Congress of political and economic opportunism -- influencing public opinion while the nation is still coming to terms with last week's unprecedented events. "No one should ever trust figures collected in the aftermath of a disaster -- people are confused and emotional, and will be led easily by imagery," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. "It would be extremely irresponsible to shape public policy in response to a tragedy."

This winter the Home Office is scheduled to enforce the final stages of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which will grant law enforcement authorities the power to demand decryption keys from the place where data is encrypted. Privacy groups are concerned that Britain's enthusiasm for a unilateral global approach towards surveillance could re-energise the key escrow debate. Key escrow is a controversial mechanism whereby individuals and businesses must lodge a decryption key with a government-appointed body in case law enforcement officials need to decrypt the data.

"I expect that the UK government will do everything in its power to claw back the ground that they lost in the public debate over RIPA. If it means subverting and amending legislation, the Home Office will propose this, and it will go through Parliament on the nod," said Davies. "Such a move would be a travesty, and subvert the democratic process."

See the Surveillance News Section for the latest headlines.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the Security forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.

Editorial standards