Big Brother inside
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #4

Intro: Will recent US proposals end freedom in the information age?

I wake up in the morning, log on to my computer while talking to someone over the phone. Government agencies know exactly when, how, and for how long. I leave for work, and my cellular phone acts as a homing device. Government agencies know exactly where I am. I go into a shop to buy (something private). Big Brother knows exactly how much and how often I do this. I telecommute to various places for my work, and Big Brother knows, within a second, who all I communicate with.

Laws and equipment in India may not make this a feasible scenario, as yet. However, the $20 billion estimated to be spent on telecommunications over the next few years is going to be for optical fiber and wholly digital programmable exchanges, of the sort present all over the US and Europe (Japan doesn't concern us here -- for a "developed" country, Japan is surprisingly un-wired). These exchanges and other telecom equipment in use are highly capable of implementing the paranoid situation I imagined. What prevents it is only the current laws, about to be brought "up-to-date" by the thought police of various countries, primarily and initially the United States.

There are two proposals that should worry anyone concerned about their privacy. The first is Clipper, a government-approved public key encryption standard. Public key encryption avoids the risk present in communicating a single secret key to the recipient of a secure message, by using two keys, one public and one private. Data encrypted using the public key can only be decrypted through the private one. Clipper, a chip to implement complex encryption in hardware, would be installed in equipment (Clipperphones, for example), making communication far more secure than it is at present, transparently and without any inconveniences. That security may be misplaced. Clipper comes pre-sabotaged just as it comes gift-wrapped in ease-of-use. Unlike a true public key system, Clipper-coded data can be intercepted and decoded using a master key, unique to every Clipper device. The master key is of course held by the government. Or rather, as a sop to libertarians outraged by the possibility of so much prying power concentrated in a single institution, half the master key will be held "in escrow" each with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Treasury. Clipper is a fairly technical issue, but discussions have finally reached the general public. Last week, Time magazine published an article critical of Clipper. When the electronic version was withdrawn from the previous issue on America On-line (where Time is available a day before the print version) there was some speculation that they may have been 'persuaded' to drop it!

The other proposal, perhaps even more dangerous though it has received less coverage, is the deviously titled Digital Telephony and Communications Privacy Improvement Act. This act aims to "clarify and define the responsibility of common carriers ... and telecom equipment manufacturers," without "reducing or enlarging the government's authority to lawfully intercept communications." It insists that manufacturers and operators of communication equipment must provide 'backdoors' for agencies with warrants to tap into all traffic. While the Act is "intended to improve communications privacy," any encryption will naturally be sabotaged, like Clipper. The Act also calls for the simultaneous availability of call setup information -- whom you're talking to, and how, but not what you're saying.

Of course, authorities have always been able to tap phones and trace calls. But the ability to do so instantaneously, and archive and extensively analyze, is due to the digital nature of modern communication. Electronic surveillance no longer requires physical presence at communications facilities, and it is therefore much harder to enforce or check for the presence of court orders. It is just possible that the Act will not be passed. But if it is...

All this is not very applicable to India -- any digital communication is probably totally ignored. As we expand our infrastructure, what kind of information society will it bring?

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