NEWS

Securing Internet communication is the next big technological challenge

Privacy and communication are not incompatible, despite the prevalence of surveillance systems the world over. In fact, many experts believe that it will be possible in the future to whisper something in someone’s ear, even when they are thousands of kilometers away. American Philip Zimmerman, originator of the pioneering encryption software Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), is a special consultant for one of the largest software companies in the United States. While in Greece recently to participate in the Information Security Matrix Forum, he told Kathimerini: «Advances have been made in encryption systems and now communication can be completely secure. Privacy should be a basic component of a normal life.» Electronic commerce Encryption technology is already used for commercial purposes on the Internet and in mobile telephony. Whenever someone buys something online, the details of his credit card are encrypted. The most widely used search engines incorporate encryption software. Mobile telephone companies use similar systems every time they authorize a subscriber to use their networks. «Electronic commerce, which is the basis of the global economy, entails the use of encryption software. The development of the Internet was achieved thanks to the use of such programs,» said Zimmerman. The latest challenge is to protect the privacy of telephone conversations, especially now that conventional fixed-line telephony is gradually being replaced by an Internet calling system, known as Voice over International Protocol (VoIP). This makes it easy for someone in Australia, for instance, to eavesdrop on a telephone call between two people in the United States or anywhere else. «So far, secret services have monitored calls within their national borders. Through the Internet, however, one can plant a virus in a computer to document and make sound recordings of any calls they want, even on the other side of the world,» explained Zimmerman. Voice encryption requires powerful algorithms as it must be done in real time – fractions of seconds. Two methods are in common use. The first, secret-key encryption, has been in use for centuries. «The two people who are in communication each have access to the same secret key. The sender uses it to codify the message and the recipient to decipher it,» Theodoulos Garefalakis told Kathimerini. Garefalakis is an assistant professor in the math department of the University of Crete and a special contributor to the Technology Research Foundation of Crete. The second, established in the late 1970s, is more complex, as it uses a pair of keys, one of which is not secret and the other which is known only to the two people who are communicating. The former is used to encrypt a file or message and the latter to decipher it. As Garefalakis notes, what matters is that the key (the way the algorithm functions) remains secret and not the algorithm itself. A technique discovered by Swiss researchers is still at an experimental stage. Known as quantum cryptography, it is based on the interaction of photons. The use of encryption has a long political history. During World War II the Allied forces gained a distinct advantage when they managed to break the code used by the Germans. Some people even claim that the fall of the Soviet Union began when the Americans began to steal trade secrets from the Eastern bloc by deciphering their communications codes. Zimmerman was prosecuted by the US authorities for freely distributing PGP software in contravention of a ban on the export of encryption software. That law was amended in 2000 after pressure from the computer industry and informal public debate among members of Congress, lawyers, the media and privacy protection authorities. In order to keep encryption under their control, the National Security Agency and the FBI argued that such techniques could become a weapon in the hands of terrorists. They claimed that all kinds of criminals could exchange secret e-mails with dangerous content. «Luckily, we concluded that, despite the danger, it is better for society to have access to a useful tool for the protection of privacy,» said Zimmerman. «Everybody else uses the Internet. Apart from hunting down terrorists, the authorities also have a duty to protect communication and transactions between members of the public from common criminals.»