The Cold War is over. It is time U.S. security agencies figured out what that means: no further excuses for holding back technological advance. But that is unlikely without a push from the Congress. In a struggle reminiscent of the FBI's attempt to control emerging telephone technology, the National Security Agency is fighting to keep in place Cold War restrictions on data security.
We've been over this ground before. In 1976, researchers in an esoteric branch of mathematics called cryptology invented a new way to "encrypt" computer data. "Public-key" encryption allowed anyone to turn data into a secret code, using a widely xTC distributed mathematical formula. Reading the encrypted data required a not-so-public second formula, distributed only to intended recipients. The NSA, horrified, forced weakening of the standard to make such encrypted data interceptable by its super sleuths, whose charter is to snoop on international electronic traffic.
That was understandable in 1977, with superpower contention dominating all other considerations. It's not so understandable now, with the former Soviet Union broken up. As computer specialists make clear today, commercial competition is the biggest threat. Security has less to do with safes, locks and approved badges than with keeping unauthorized remote users out of computer systems and with blocking unauthorized readers from perusing the proprietary information zipping around the world over telephone circuits.