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Global crypto survey proves govt backdoors completely pointless

Like playing a frustrating game of whack-a-mole

In 1999, when a fierce crypto war was raging between governments and developers, researchers undertook a global survey of available encryption products.

Now security guru Bruce Schneier and other experts have repeated the exercise, and it spells bad news for those demanding backdoors in today's cryptography.

The latest study analyzed 865 hardware and software products incorporating encryption from 55 countries, with a third of them coming from the US. That's up from 805 in 35 countries in 1999.

The goal of the survey is to catalogue available products and applications, rather than score or rate them. The team did not have the time to evaluate each system in depth. One thing the list does demonstrate, though, is the wide availability of software with builtin encryption, distributed from all corners of the globe.

Schneier told The Register this shows calls for backdoors are pretty pointless because it's rather easy for a person to move from one encryption system to another. If one product is found to be flawed by design, or compromised by a government, there will be another package available that isn't.

"Assuming substitution is relatively low cost, any domestic encryption regulations won't have the desired effect," Schneier said. "As for enforcement, it would be ridiculous to try and enforce a ban on non-government-approved encryption."

He pointed out that in 1999, distributing software was a lot harder than it is today. The internet population was way smaller, there was no GitHub, there were precious few online software repositories, and there were limited ways to obtain stuff from overseas in an untraceable manner.

But with the internet today, all of those problems have been virtually solved. Now people can build encryption into software for free and let anyone download and use their code. Of the 546 non-US encryption systems studied, 44 per cent are free and 34 per cent are open source, and even commercial systems usually have a free trial version.

"A lot of this stuff is very niche," Schneier noted. "People are making it because they want to – there's a lot more altruistic encryption."

Furthermore, a lot of products store their source code on servers in multiple countries, making it tricky for the authorities in one country to claim a clear jurisdiction over a particular project. Some development efforts are spread out over systems in Iraq, the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, Saint Kitts, Tanzania, and you get the drift.

Schneier said that, in terms of quality, the products available are a mixed bag when it came to effectiveness, but that most were perfectly usable and would make law enforcement trying to snoop on the contents of conversations very difficult.

The bottom line, Schneier said, was that the minute a nation introduced laws requiring government-only backdoors in software, people will simply move to a new encryption product. Such regulations could cripple that country's global software industry's sales – something Apple, Google et al are nervously aware of. ®

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