Law proposed to regulate data-scrambling technology Administration seeks to require decoding feature

September 07, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Clinton administration is circulating proposed legislation on Capitol Hill that would, for the first time, impose strict controls on the manufacture and use of technology that scrambles electronic data for privacy reasons.

The proposal would prohibit the manufacture, sale, import or distribution within the United States of any such technology unless it contained a feature for immediate decoding of any message by law-enforcement officials with a wiretap order from a court, known as a trapdoor feature.

The law would also require telephone companies and Internet providers that offer data-scrambling technology, called encryption, to have that same feature.

Encryption technology has broad uses, including protecting information related to purchases made over the Internet, making possible private communication by telephone or computer and certifying the identity of an individual, as well as in the transmission of military and intelligence secrets.

The government maintains that it needs access to scrambled data for national security and law enforcement.

Currently, the only limitations on data-scrambling technology are regulations governing the export of hardware and software containing encryption features. That has allowed U.S. citizens and companies to develop and use any kind of encryption devices.

Under the administration proposal, although data-scrambling technology would have to have the trapdoor, the users would not be required to turn on the feature.

Critics say the feature would simply be a first step toward making such a surveillance capability a legal requirement.

And in testimony last week before the Senate subcommittee dealing with the issue, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said that he would lobby to make the trapdoor a legal requirement.

The new legislation represents a significant reversal for the administration, which had insisted that it was opposed to domestic encryption controls.

It also appears to contradict the administration's support for unregulated development of commerce on the Internet, an approach emphasized last week in a speech by Ira Magaziner, a senior presidential adviser, to a meeting of the American Electronics Association in Silicon Valley.

The proposal comes at a time when encryption hardware and software are becoming increasingly crucial for the development of secure electronic commerce systems and for the protection of personal privacy on the Internet.

Civil libertarians say the legislation would be a significant move toward a complete ban on products that offer unbreakable communications privacy.

"This is not the first step toward the surveillance society -- it is the surveillance society," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

But government officials disputed the idea that requiring decoding technology would mean the technology would be used.

"There is nothing about putting this enabling technology into law that will inevitably lead to it being turned on," said Robert Litt, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney.

The administration is moving in an effort to block legislation that is to be considered this week by the House Intelligence and National Security committees. That legislation would end government control over cryptographic systems. The administration proposal is being offered as an amendment to that bill.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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