The Crypto Wars are over!

    Date25 May 2005
    Posted ByBrittany Day
    The "crypto wars" are finally over - and we've won!

    On 25th May 2005, Part I of the Electronic Communications Act 2000 will be torn out of the statute book and shredded, finally removing the risk of the UK Government taking powers to seize encryption keys.

    The crypto wars started in the 1970s when the US government started treating cryptographic algorithms and software as munitions and interfering with university research in cryptography. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration tried to get industry to adopt the Clipper chip - an encryption chip for which the government had a back-door key. When this failed, they tried to introduce key escrow - a policy that all encryption systems should leave a spare key with a `trusted third party' that would hand the key over to the FBI on demand. They tried to crack down on encryption products that did not contain key escrow. When software developer Phil Zimmermann developed PGP, a free mass-market encryption product for emails and files, the US government even started to prosecute him, because someone had exported his software from the USA without government permission.

    In its dying days, John Major's Conservative Government proposed draconian controls in the UK too. Any provider of encryption services would have to be licensed and encryption keys would have to be placed in escrow just in case the Government wanted to read your email. New Labour opposed crypto controls in opposition, which got them a lot of support from the IT and civil liberties communities. They changed their minds, though, after they came to power in May 1997 and the US government lobbied them.

    However, encryption was rapidly becoming an important technology for commercial use of the Internet - and the new industry was deeply opposed to any bureaucracy which prevented them from innovating and imposed unnecessary costs. So was the banking industry, which worried about threats to payment systems from corrupt officials. In 1998, the Foundation for Information Policy Research was established by cryptographers, lawyers, academics and civil liberty groups, with industry support, and helped campaign for digital freedoms.

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