The politics of encryption / The Skimmer

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The politics of encryption

Although international encryption policies are restrictive and outdated, these policies may be relaxed or made obsolete in the near future. Several countries have loosened their encryption laws this year. France has significantly relaxed its encryption policies, now requiring simple declaration rather than prior authorization to supply and use encryption systems. Germany has changed its stance on encryption, encouraging the technology as a way of protecting personal liberties. Germany’s attitude towards encryption could represent a trend: “Law enforcement will begin to see that strong encryption prevents more crimes than it conceals.” The U.S. is heading toward the elimination of government encryption laws, based on the outcome of the Bernstein vs. Department of Justice case in May. In the case, Professor Bernstein won by arguing that not being allowed to post encryption algorithms on the Internet for his cryptography course was a violation of his right to free speech. In addition,U.S.export laws may be relaxed if Congress approves legislation such as the SAFE Act, although it is likely that access keys, to be held by the government, will still be required. Currently, the most encryption-friendly area in the world is Latin America, which appears to have few laws that limit the export, import, or use of encryption technology. By contrast, Russia and some former Soviet states have some of the most restrictive encryption policies. All of these policies may soon be irrelevant because fast-paced technology is providing ways around the laws.

The Other side of the coin

Department of Justice officials last week defended their request that Congress update laws governing search warrants that reflect the growing use of encryption technology. The proposal asks Congress to grant federal agents greater access to sealed warrants, signed by a judge, permitting them to enter private property and install devices in private computers to override encryption software. More than 250 congressmen have already co-sponsored a countermeasure that would encourage the use of encryption and proscribe a proposal from the Clinton Administration to mandate a so-called back door in computer systems, one which would allow investigators to sidestep encryption. Not everyone agrees. Michael Froomkin, a law professor and encryption specialist at the University of Miami, insists that the agency’s request would diminish privacy and allow police greater access to private property. Law enforcement officials counter that investigators will be ineffectual unless empowered to collect encrypted data. Justice Department officials emphasize that, like wiretaps, such warrants would be under tight control by the courts.

The Skimmer

There is a really neat little item made in Taiwan about the size of a beeper. When you use your credit card to pay a bill, the Skimmer is then put into action. On the way to the register or out of your sight, someone can simply run your card with the magnetic strip through the Skimmer, which captures all of your information, including name, address, telephone number, card number, and credit limit. The Skimmer holds about 100 entries and the information can be downloaded into any computer.

Crooks can then use blank cards and become you in minutes. The Skimmer also has an erase button on it, so if caught, the crook simply hits the button and all the information is gone, leaving no evidence on which to prosecute. In the past, skimming your credit card required at least a laptop computer and a card reader.

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