Skip to main content Skip to navigation

JILT 1998 (1) - Ian Lloyd

Bruce Schneier and David Banisar's

The Electronic Privacy Papers:

Documents on the Battle for Privacy in the Age of Surveillance

John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1997, £50
747pp. + xvii, ISBN: 0-471-12297-1

Reviewed by
Ian Lloyd
University of Strathclyde

The history of cryptography is a lengthy one. An early user was Julius Caesar whose despatches to Rome from Gaul were encrypted using what is now referred to as the Caesar code. The motive behind Caesar's action, that of seeking to protect communications against the risk of discovery in the course of transmission by hostile parties remains the prime reason for encryption. The issue has come to assume considerable importance in relation to communications over the Internet. The Internet is a notoriously insecure environment and the use of encryption technology has been seen as valuable for securing both commercial communications and the privacy of personal messages.

What can be encoded can also be decoded and the centuries have evidenced a continuing battle between code makers and code breakers. The arrival of the computer has added new weapons to both side's armouries. On the one side, the ability of computers to process vast amounts of data at enormous speed has rendered vulnerable traditional encryption techniques involving the substitution or transposition of letters. Countering this, new forms of encryption have been developed based upon mathematical formulae which increase dramatically the effort required to 'break' a coded message. Coupled with the increased strength of codes, encryption systems such as PGP are widely available for use by those exchanging data electronically. In principle, if not in practice, encryption techniques are available to the masses and governmental concerns have been raised that increasing use of encryption will allow criminals and terrorists to make their plans free from the prospect of being discovered by law enforcement agencies.

Within the United States (and similar proposals have been put forward in the United Kingdom), government proposals have sought to combine enhanced confidentiality for communications with the requirements of law enforcement by providing for the use of an official form of encryption - the clipper chip. This would provide relatively strong encryption but with the sting that a key would be made available to law enforcement agencies investigating actual or potential offences. This aspect of the proposals has proved massively controversial and Banisar and Schneier's work charts the history of the clipper chip in minute detail. Almost 750 pages of text present a vast range of governmental and other documents describing the views and tactics of both proponents and opponents of the system. A significant number of the documents presented were obtained under United States freedom of information legislation and given current proposals for the introduction of such a system in the United Kingdom, it provides a fascinating illustration of the operation of such a system. Many of the documents, which are presented in their original format, bear the marks of considerable editing with large portions of text being blanked out. The documents on pages 215-8 are particularly impressive examples of the censor's art with every useful item of information being concealed. By way of contrast, other documents may have only a single word or phrase concealed although here, the editing effort may even be greater. If the documents are in any way typical of those requested under freedom of information, it is clear that the bureaucratic efforts involved in operating the system must be massive.

In terms of content, the book must be regarded as an information resource rather than a volume to be read from cover to cover. For a non-US reader it might have been helpful to have provided a little more background on the role and status of the various organisations and individuals whose documents are reproduced. It may be that a greater degree of selectivity in the choice of materials to be included would have produced a shorter and more coherent work, but there is no doubt that the volume is an essential reference work for those with an interest in the topic. It appears likely that proposals for legislative controls over encryption will be published by the UK government in the near future and it is to be hoped (rather than expected) that debate will be able to be conducted on the basis of a volume of material comparable to that presented by Banisar and Schneier.

This is a Book Review published on 27 February 1998.

Citation: Lloyd I, 'Bruce Schneier and David Banisar's The Electronic Privacy Papers: Documents on the Battle for Privacy in the Age of Surveillance', Book Review, 1998 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

JILT logo and link to JILT homepage