19 March 1998
Thanks to Ian Brown
The Guardian Online, March 19, 1998
Privacy on the Line: the politics of wiretapping and encryption
by Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau
MIT Press, London (01243 779777)
Digital Crime: policing the cybernation
The Digital Enterprise: how digitisation is redefining
There could hardly be a better time to bring out a book linked to the confusing stalemate that stands for government policy on control of the Internet. And thats not a dig at the current New Labour government, not least because a hefty thump would be more in order. Its a statement reflecting the total disarray that now engulfs governments on both sides of the Atlantic as they struggle to come to terms with the electronic beast unleashed.
Nearly 18 months ago, an official from inside the Clinton administration stood up at an international conference and confessed, unattributably she insisted, we got it wrong. The admission seemed like a breath of fresh air in the wake of the furore over the US governments restrictions on the export of software that would allow Internet users to encrypt messages that even the Pentagon couldnt easily crack. But what has happened since?
In Washington, the Clinton administration has brought together the industrys top gurus for advice on what to do next, but still none of them is happy to talk about their deliberations; and in London the Department of Trade and Industry is organising round tables after its disastrous first foray into the arena. But thats better than nothing, and not as bad as it could be? Well, yes . . . thats about it.
You know things have got pretty bad when you find yourself slapping the back of Bill Gates, the boss of Microsoft. He doesnt need anyones support, but it was difficult not to cheer a couple of weeks ago when he sat before a Senate committee investigating how Microsoft would manipulate its monopoly of PCs to dominate the Internet and said, in effect, dont be silly. Gates may have come late to the Internet, but hes certainly not stupid enough to imagine that the medium can be controlled. Instead, hes quickly embraced a corporate strategy that, while acknowledging the Nets independence, is designed to see just how far he and Microsoft can go in setting the ground rules.
Why no government has seen fit to adopt anything approaching this strategy could well form the basis of philosophy tutorials for the next millennium and beyond. Lets not beat about the bush. Governments can set limits and control traffic on the Internet, and legitimate organisations can obey the rules and see their businesses suffer as a result.
Traders that cannot guarantee the confidentiality of their transactions, whether they are banks or lawyers or car component manufacturers, will not attract business. Meanwhile, political terrorists and criminal groups can put up two fingers to the official restrictions, and use whatever means they like to ensure their success. Thats the nature of the beast.
Neil Barrett doesnt beat about the bush either. In his primer for the worried business executive, this maverick from Bull Information Systems draws on his history as a hacker to provide many more sleepless nights.
While Kay Henning offers the Internet as a business model, and her book is about as interesting as a business model can get, the real gem of this trio of works is that of Diffie and Landau. For a start, theres a depth to their writing that reinforces their arguments for the need for privacy to be maintained online. Then theres their style, which is particularly engaging for what is essentially an academic reference text. But above all, there is the sheer volume of information, processed as knowledge, that is most impressive. You feel that this is the sort of book that Gates and his cocoa curl up with.
19 March 1998