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Chapter: Security in Computing : Legal and Ethical Issues in Computer Security

Cryptography and the Law

The law is used to regulate people for their own good and for the greater good of society. Murder, theft, drinking, and smoking are circumscribed by laws.

Cryptography and the Law


The law is used to regulate people for their own good and for the greater good of society. Murder, theft, drinking, and smoking are circumscribed by laws. Generally, the balance between personal freedom and the good of society is fairly easy to judge; for example, one's right to fire a gun ends when the bullet hits someone. Cryptography is also a regulated activity, but the issues are a little less clear-cut, in part because there is little open discussion of the subject.


People want to protect their privacy, including the secrecy of communications with others. Businesses want similar confidentiality. Criminals want secrecy so that they can communicate criminal plans in private. Governments want to track illegal activity, both to prevent crime and to apprehend and convict criminals after a crime has been committed. Finally, nations want to know the military and diplomatic plans of other nations. As shown throughout this book, cryptography can be a powerful tool to protect confidentiality, but being able to break cryptography can be a potent tool for government. Phrased differently, it suits governments' interests if people cannot use cryptography that is too good (meaning, unbreakable by the government).


Controls on Use of Cryptography


Closely related to restrictions on content are restrictions on the use of cryptography imposed on users in certain countries. In China, for example, State Council Order 273 requires foreign organizations or individuals to apply for permission to use encryption in China. Pakistan requires that all encryption hardware and software be inspected and approved by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. And in Iraq, use of even the Internet is strictly limited, and unauthorized use of encryption carries heavy penalties.


France's encryption policy is probably the most widely discussed. Import of encryption products is subject to a registration requirement: A vendor's registration for a mass-market commercial product is valid for all imports of that product. Use of encryption for authentication is unlimited. Use of encryption with a key length up to 128 for confidentiality requires only the vendor's registration. Use of products with a key length greater than 128 bits requires that the key be escrowed with a trusted third party.


Such laws are very difficult to enforce individually. Cryptography, steganography, and secret writing have been used for centuries. The governments know they cannot prevent two cooperating people from concealing their communications. However, governments can limit widespread computer-based use by limiting cryptography in mass-market products. Although policing 50 million computer users is impossible, controlling a handful of major computer manufacturers is feasible, especially ones whose profits would be affected by not being able to sell any products in a particular country. Thus, governments have addressed cryptography use at the source: the manufacturer and vendor.


Controls on Export of Cryptography

Until 1998, the United States led other industrialized nations in controlling cryptography. It did this by controlling export of cryptographic products, using the same category as munitions, such as bombs and atomic missiles. Although the law applied to everyone, in practice it


could be enforced reasonably only against mass-market software manufacturers. Software makers could export freely[1] any product using symmetric encryption with a key length of 40 bits or less. Exceptions allowed stronger encryption for financial institutions and for multinational corporations using the encryption for intracompany communication. Cryptography solely for authentication (for example, digital signatures) was also permitted. Although the law did not control the use of cryptography, limiting export effectively limited its use because major vendors could not sell products worldwide with strong encryption.

 U.S. policy was especially important because most mass -market software vendors were based in the United States, and many users were in the United States. The United States could also pressure software vendors not to write programs in such a way that someone could add the cryptography at an overseas location. Although a software vendor could move to or open a subsidiary in an uncontrolled country, a new vendor has a hard time obtaining a significant share of the market against large, established competitors. If such a vendor were able to take a significant amount of business away from U.S. companies, there would be an outcry and possible political pressure from the U.S. government. Thus, U.S. policy on this issue would and did dominate the world market.


Cryptography and Free Speech


Cryptography involves not just products; it involves ideas, too. Although governments effectively control the flow of products across borders, controlling the flow of ideas, either in people's heads or on the Internet, is almost impossible.


In a decision akin to splitting hairs, the U.S. courts ruled that computer object code was subject to the export restrictions, but a printed version of the corresponding source code was an idea that could not be restricted. The case in question involved Phil Zimmermann, the inventor of PGP e-mail encryption. In 1997, Zimmermann "exported" books containing the printed source code to PGP, and volunteers in Europe spent 1000 hours scanning the pages of the book; they then posted this source code publicly on the Internet. To highlight the vacuousness of this distinction, people reduced the object code of the PGP program to a bar code and printed that code on T-shirts with the caption "Warning, this T-shirt may be a controlled munition."


Cryptographic Key Escrow


Although laws enable governments to read encrypted communications, the governments don't really want to read all of them. A joking e-mail message or a file with your tax data is seldom a national security concern. But suppose there was evidence of cheating on your taxes or your writings were seditious. In these cases the government could convince a court to allow it to search your home, office, or computer files. It might then have reason and justification for wanting to read your encrypted data. So the government devised a scheme in which your encryption keys would become available only with court authorization.


In 1996 the U.S. government offered to relax the export restriction for so -called escrowed encryption, in which the government would be able to obtain the encryption key for any encrypted communication. The key escrow approach was a part of an initiative known under names such as Clipper, Capstone, and Fortezza. Ultimately this approach failed; the public feared what the government could actually access. See [HOF95] and [DEN99] for more discussion on the key escrow debate.


Current Policy


The U.S. National Research Council (NRC) reported the results of an 18-month study [NRC96] to recommend a cryptographic policy for the U.S. federal government. The report carefully weighed all the factors affected by cryptographic policy, such as protecting sensitive information for U.S. companies and individuals as well as foreign ones, international commerce, enforcing laws (prevention, investigation, and prosecution), and intelligence gathering. The report's recommendations for policy include the following:


No law should bar the manufacture, sale, or use of any form of encryption within the United States.


Export controls on cryptography should be relaxed but not eliminated.


Products providing confidentiality at a level that meets most general commercial requirements should be easily exportable. In 1996, that level included products that incorporate 56-bit key DES, and so these products should be easily exportable.


Escrowed encryption should be studied further, but, as it is not yet a mature technology, its use should not be mandated.


Congress should seriously consider legislation that would impose criminal penalties on the use of encrypted communications in interstate commerce with the intent to commit a crime.


In September 1998, the U.S. government announced that it was opening up export of encryption. Export of single (56-bit) key DES would be allowed to all countries except seven that supported terrorism. Unlimited size encryption would be exportable to 45 major industrial countries for use by financial institutions, medical providers, and e-commerce companies. Furthermore, the process for applying for permission, which had been another formidable deterrent, was simplified to a review taking no more than a week in most cases.


Summary of Legal Issues in Computer Security


This section has described four aspects of the relationship between computing and the law. First, we presented the legal mechanisms of copyright, patent, and trade secret as means to protect the secrecy of computer hardware, software, and data. These mechanisms were designed before the invention of the computer, so their applicability to computing needs is somewhat limited. However, program protection is especially desired, and software companies are pressing the courts to extend the interpretation of these means of protection to include computers.


We also explored the relationship between employers and employees, in the context of writers of software. Well-established laws and precedents control the acceptable access an employee has to software written for a company.


Third, we examined the legal side of software vulnerabilities: Who is liable for errors in software, and how is that liability enforced? Additionally, we considered alternative ways to report software errors.


Fourth, we noted some of the difficulties in prosecuting computer crime. Several examples showed how breaches of computer security are treated by the courts. In general, the courts have not yet granted computers, software, and data appropriate status, considering value of assets and seriousness of crime. The legal system is moving cautiously in its acceptance of computers. We described several important pieces of computer crime legislation that represent slow progress forward.

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