Electronic Weapons: August 22, 2002

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Encryption (using a secret code to scramble electronic data so only those with the decoding "key" can use it) has become pretty standard for those sending sensitive data over the Internet. While the danger of people stealing credit card numbers and other data sent over the Internet is real (or at least technically possible), there have been very few incidents of this actually happening. Still, people are fearful and increasingly insist on encryption. Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows XP, comes with 56 bit encryption. The more bits are used in encryption, the harder it is to crack (decode without decoding key.) At the moment, 56 bit encryption can easily be cracked (there is free software available on the internet for doing this.) Along the same lines, 2048 bit encryption is considered uncrackable (for the moment, even by the National Security Agency). Using a 2048 bit key requires more work on the part of the computers, but in most cases this is no strain (PCs are so much more powerful than when the 56 bit keys came along over a decade ago). The military is concerned about this less because more Department of Defense communications have to be encrypted (a lot of it already is), than because foreign military's, and terrorist groups, are also using heavy duty encryption. For the first time ever, the United States is dealing with a lot of encrypted communications that it has no practical hope of decoding. But then again, maybe not. There are rumors and whispers of techniques that cut right through the current encryption techniques that rely on factoring prime numbers. Is this true? If anyone had developed a "magic key" (and such things have happened before), you'd better believe that people would want to keep it a secret.

 


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