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How the U.S. Will Criminalize Quantum Cryptography

The Feds are poking Facebook and Google harder than ever. And the fallout may extend way into the communication future and quantum cryptography. Yesterday FBI Director Robert Mueller III and General Counsel Valerie Caproni met with leaders from...
November 17, 2010, 10:10pm

The Feds are poking Facebook and Google harder than ever. And the fallout may extend way into the communication future and quantum cryptography.

Yesterday FBI Director Robert Mueller III and General Counsel Valerie Caproni met with leaders from Facebook and Google to talk about how they can more easily burrow into your accounts. No word on how they replied yet (the news appeared in the Register) but from the FBI’s point of view, the general concern is that their old methods of wiretapping are becoming obsolete in the face of VOiP tech like Google Talk and Skype, which take place over encrypted communication channels rather than much cruder landline telephone tech.

So, what they want is some way, provided by the companies, that they can unencrypt those channels and, aided by their dynamite sense of finding out who the bad guys are, proceed like they could back in the Dragnet days. This has to do with the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, a law in process that forces phone and broadband providers to “have the means to make sure they can immediately comply with court wiretap orders.” The FBI wants to extend that to all communication service providers, which includes Skype et al.

Under the proposal, developers of email, instant-messaging and voice-over-internet-protocol applications would be forced to redesign their services so their contents can be intercepted by law enforcement agents. The Commerce Department and State Department have questioned whether such a requirement would stifle innovation and put US companies at a disadvantage. They have also have concerns that the capabilities could be abused by rogue regimes to spy on US citizens.

Understand that what the FBI is asking these companies to do is do their snooping for them. Encryption isn’t something that started with VOiP or internet networks. It’s long been a form of passing a secret message, coding something so that it’s only readable to the receiver.

To put it even more bluntly: the FBI wants to make passing secret messages illegal, for anyone (more later). Encryption is an active cloaking process. It differs from, say, a phone landline that was never really meant to be communications safe channel. (Think of listening in to your older sister’s phone conversations as a kid, or whatever.)

It was however protected legally from unwarranted eavesdropping. Now, we’re taking an already protected channel and saying that no, that’s not OK. So, the question: what does it mean for encrypted communication in the U.S. if it can no longer exist without a third-party key at the ready? Just in case. Am I going too far in saying that this is/would be a de facto criminalization of true encryption technology?

There is a final point here, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been brought up: quantum cryptography. The beauty of true quantum encryption is that it is impossible to intercept a message without changing the message and, thus, alerting the receiving party that something is amiss. This is not at all something that can be worked around. It’s true that a quantum system has been “hacked” in a demonstration-type environment. But, by the time quantum encryption goes live, it’s safe to say that exploits like that will be worked out.

So, let me rephrase my question above. If Google offered in ten or so years a VOqC (Voice Over Quantum Channel) service, will it be de facto outlawed? Google can’t provide the FBI with a key to decrypt it, so, logically, it would seem that Google could not proceed with its service. Thoughts?

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

Image: Nick Carter/flickr