I have a friend who is averse to reading emails. That makes it difficult for us to arrange to meet for coffee because I’m averse to telephones. As spies we’d do dismally. How would we come together long enough to arrange a dead drop, a place where we would leave and pick up future messages?
In today’s spy world, dead drops are passé, of course. The method of choice is public key cryptology, gobbledygook developed by computer scientists Whittfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. We use the system to do electronic banking, shop on line or digitally sign a document. In other words, public key cryptology allows anyone to enter a web address while keeping secret the information he or she leaves behind.
Unfortunately, public key cryptology has its drawback. With so much information gathered in one place, hackers find some sites irresistible. Equifax and Facebook know the attraction, having had their customers’ accounts violated. So, here’s the present conundrum. We want to protect an individual’s privacy. But we also want to collect data for the public good. Doing medical research is one example. How do we manage both while keeping information out of the hands of crooks? Do algorithms exist that can teach a computer when it’s okay to peek into accounts and when it isn’t?
The answer is, no. Apple, Google and Microsoft are working on the question, but defining public and private good is a thorny issue. (“Private A. I.” by Zynep Tufekci, Wired, April 2019, pg 18.)
As plastics may have been the watchword of the past, encryption appears to be the word for the future. Master it and job security is yours, until the next technological revolution.
Of course encryption won’t help my friend and me set up a coffee time. Too newfangled. But, I do wonder. Is Morse code really dead?