Fight over computer privacy

May 27, 1992

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.

Everyone uses or is affected by these data transfers. Banks speed money across borders; real estate firms, industrialists, commodities traders and financiers close deals, swap information, complete negotiations and pay bills electronically. The need to keep unwanted readers from looking over their electronic shoulders is higher now, with markets globalized and volatile, than ever before. And there is no justification for requiring them to provide carte-blanche access for government snooping through files it would take courtroom battles to open if they existed only on paper.

The NSA is still looking backward. Consider its blockage of exports of "RSA," a widely used encryption scheme. Americans can't sell their versions abroad, but a Moscow programming shop makes it available to all comers for $200 to run on IBM-compatible desktop computers.

Software programming and processor technology are two computer fields in which Americans are the undisputed leaders. That lead cannot be maintained if U.S. agencies restrain developments in vain attempts to maintain easy back-door access to private information. Companies outside the U.S. will simply buy unimpaired technology from foreign makers, disdaining American versions. The NSA would still have the problem of "cracking" such robust encryption, but less American help doing it. That's no formula for success.

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