Not all ciphers are created equal. Some are mathematically simple and easy to crack while others are seemingly secure but impractical to use. Then there are the ciphers that are mathematically secure but watered down to be breakable. The Lucifer cipher, created by Horst Feistel in the 1970s, was a secure cipher algorithm that was intentionally weakened so that it could be broken by the government.
The National Security Agency limited the Lucifer cipher to 100 quadrillion keys. This number is extremely large, but the NSA wielded enough computing power to try all the possible keys used to encrypt a message and decrypt the message by finding the correct key. They argued that the encryption was still secure because only the NSA had the computing power to find the correct key, which meant that the cipher could be used for commercial purposes without being broken by rival companies (Singh 250).
The action taken by the NSA to inhibit the Lucifer cipher was unethical and unjustified. Lucifer had the potential to be genuinely unbreakable using available technology if the number of possible keys was unlimited. If the technology is available to generate an unbreakable cipher, then people should have the right to use it without having to use a modified governmental version of it. The argument that the cipher was secure to all computers except those of the NSA is inherently flawed. Even though the NSA may have the most powerful computers at a given time, they may not necessarily keep that status. If they do not even have the capability to develop the Lucifer cipher on their own or to develop the tools necessary to break it, they most likely will be behind in computer development as well. Moore’s law suggests that computing power increases exponentially (cnet.com), and at this dramatic rate of increase in technological progress, the NSA cannot guarantee that they will be the only ones able to break the cipher. They are jeopardizing commercial communications by granting themselves access to the cipher.
Parallels can be drawn between the NSA’s actions and an economic monopoly. The NSA wants complete control over this cipher, so it weakens the cipher to a level that only the NSA’s computers can break. In a monopoly, one business eliminates their competition in a region so they raise prices without fear of losing customers (econlib.org). The government is abusing their power by purposely lowering the security of a cipher that millions of people depend on. If they want to decrypt messages, they should exploit potential weaknesses using cryptanalysis. Weakening the cipher is like changing the rules in the middle of a pokergame to give one person an advantage: it’s cheating.
Simon Singh, The Code Book
Image: "All In!" by Eduardo Carrasco, Flickr (CC)