Cryptography Control: FBI Wants It, but Why?

By Susan Landau and Whitfield Diffie | The Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

Cryptography Control: FBI Wants It, but Why?


Susan Landau and Whitfield Diffie, The Christian Science Monitor


To hear the FBI tell it, unless Congress acts soon to stop the proliferation of strong encryption - the technique for scrambling computer data - the government will lose its ability to understand wiretapped communications and investigate crime.

This isn't the first time the FBI has made such a claim. In a secret briefing in 1992, the FBI told senior government officials that, in the best-case scenario, by 1995 the bureau would be unable to decipher 40 percent of wiretapped conversations because of encryption.

But in 1994 an assistant attorney general admitted to Congress that the FBI had not encountered a single case of encrypted telecommunications. And today the Bureau has faced only a handful of cases where encryption stymied wiretaps. That didn't stop FBI director Louis Freeh from testifying last month that "widespread use of unbreakable encryption is one of the most difficult problems confronting law enforcement" and urging restrictions on the deployment of cryptography lest the ability to "investigate and prevent the most serious crimes and terrorism" be impaired. Where exactly does wiretapping fit in the law-enforcement arsenal? In 1996 there were only about 1,500 legal wiretaps used in investigations, but more than 33,000 federal prosecutions and a larger number of state ones. Mr. Freeh points to a handful of crucial cases that he says show the value of the government surveillance tool: the New York City group that set out to bomb the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, cases involving organized crime leaders, and the case of CIA-officer-turned-Russian-spy Aldrich Ames. Freeh repeatedly emphasizes the importance of wiretapping in preventing terrorism and investigating kidnapping. YET, a close investigation of the claims shows otherwise. In the New York City bombing case, body mikes, not wiretaps, were used to gather evidence. Encryption would not have affected the investigation or prosecution. And the case of crime boss John Gotti, as well as a similar one in Philadelphia, turned on electronic bugs, not wiretaps. Encryption would similarly have had no effect there. Wiretaps also could not have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing - the FBI had no idea that anything of that nature was in the works. Government investigators did put wiretaps on afterward, which the defense then employed in an attempt to debunk the prosecution's chief witness, Michael Fortier. …

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