A report released today stating that encryption has not inhibited law enforcement is catching the attention of lawmakers, who have been debating the issue in different bills this week.
The authors of the report--Dorothy Denning, a Georgetown University computer science professor, and William Baugh Jr., vice president of Science Application International Corporation--studied 21 international cases of terrorism, organized crime, espionage, and child pornography, and found that encryption did not significantly affect law enforcement's ability to crack the cases.
"Most of the investigators we talked with did not find that encryption was obstructing a large number of investigations," the report states. "They were, however, concerned about the future."
Both of the authors were supporters of the Clinton administration's stance on encryption, but Denning is now questioning the administration's position in favor of loosening encryption for law enforcement's sake.
The Clinton administration has supported the use of key recovery systems, which make encrypted data available to a third party and therefore easier to decode in order to fight crime and terrorism. The report pokes a hole in the theory that looser encryption is needed because major crimes have been solved regardless of strong encryption.
The report is released as a number of legislative efforts involving encryption try to move through Capitol Hill. The Secure Public Network Act in the Senate runs similar to Clinton's position, but Nancy Ives, press secretary for Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) office, said the report findings would be taken into consideration when the bill is discussed in August.
A source from the office of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), who is sponsoring a popular encryption export bill that has been criticized by Clinton, said, "If [the report] is saying encryption does not impede law enforcement, then yes, it absolutely reinforces the need not to have key recovery."
The bill came under fire yesterday in the National Security Committee. In addition, another piece of encryption legislation, known as the McCain-Kerrey bill, was criticized by FBI director Louis Freeh earlier this month for not giving law enforcement enough leeway in fighting criminals using encryption.
Denning testified to Congress in support of the White House encryption policies in November, but as a result of her study, she said her opinion "might be a little more skeptical."
"Right now, the situation in cases of stored data is that [law enforcement officials] have been able to break the crypto because it was weak," she added. "The encryption thus far have not obstructed a lot of investigations."
Baugh said he is a strong supporter of key recovery systems but may shift his support of the administration's position. He said he is still strongly in favor of charging criminals who use encryption methods with an additional felony for using the technology to block investigations.
Although the study could be used as a weapon for supporters of strong encryption, the authors warn that the future looks bleak for law enforcement as criminals become more tech-savvy. The future is why Baugh is reluctant to advocate against government controls for encryption.
"It's clear that the criminals are starting to use and adopt the technology," he said. "But as soon as they become more knowledgeable of the use, they will become more effective."
"The storm is clearly on the horizon and close."
The study was published by the National Strategy Information Center in Washington, D.C. The cases studied included a Dutch organized crime ring that used hackers to encrypt information; the encoding of files on the computer of the 1995 New York subway bomber; and stored records from the cult that dropped nerve gas in a Tokyo subway two years ago, killing 12 people.
While the authors did not see many differences for law enforcement internationally in breaking crimes, they did say that because of incidents like the Tokyo subway killings, countries outside the United States looked into the issue sooner.
"Some of those cases caused a reaction by the countries involved to look more quickly than the United States at a proper solution," Baugh noted.