Kiss Privacy Goodbye: Myths and Realities about Cryptography and Society

South Lounge, Grinnell College
Tuesday, October 27, 1998, 4:15 PM

Nathaniel S. Borenstein
Robert Noyce Visiting Professor

Information technology is unfriendly to privacy. This unpleasant but fundamental truth is the root of a great deal of misunderstanding, fear, and disinformation regarding the Internet, particularly in the areas of security, free expression, governance, and public policy.

In partcular, access to cryptography has emerged as one of the first great political issues of the Information Age. Cryptography is an important technology that can be used to help protect the privacy of any information stored on computers, which has led governments to try to restrict its use by terrorists, pedophiles, and other criminals. Such restrictions, in turn, have led to a powerful outcry by groups and individuals concerned with free expression and civil liberties.

Unfortunately, public discussion about access to cryptography is made murky by two great myths that muddy our thinking: the myth that cryptography can be controlled by governments, and the myth that cryptography significantly enhances our protection from anyone determined to compromise it, particularly governments. These myths inflame the greatest fears on each side in the debate over cryptography, and obscure the real truths that should inform that debate: the absence of any foolproof technical approaches to protecting privacy, and the importance of personal tolerance and legal due process in the preservation of human liberty.

This talk is intended for general audiences, and presumes no special technical knowledge. Experience using the Internet may help make some of the examples more comprehensible, however.

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