Ease restrictions on encryption

The Clinton administration knows that the United States is being overtaken in encryption technology, and wishes only to buy time before a reckoning in the market.

April 29, 1999|By Philip Terzian

WASHINGTON -- The NATO summit in Washington this past week offered a bird's-eye view of the U.S. obsession with security.

Several blocks surrounding the White House and Treasury Department were declared off-limits to "unauthorized personnel," including the people who work there. Traffic was barred from the standard commuter routes, compounding the capital's habitual gridlock.

The White House, which features rooftop sharpshooters, surface-to-air missiles and enough unsmiling constables to guard a mid-sized city, was garrisoned by layers of uniformed guards, fingering jumbo weapons. Tourists were advised to gaze elsewhere on this day.

To be sure, there was good reason for concern. Not since the funeral of John F. Kennedy had Washington seen such a concentration of heads of state. And NATO is prosecuting a war at the moment, not to everyone's satisfaction.

Security overload

Still, we tend to overdo these things: The Secret Service has managed to surround the presidential residence with gruesome concrete bunkers; the Capitol building is inaccessible by car; and of course, "America's Main Street" -- Pennsylvania Avenue -- is now closed to automobiles around the White House, permanently snarling downtown traffic. You can be crossing a street when, out of nowhere, things suddenly come to a halt as the motorcycle cops, stretch limousines and armed escort vans fly by -- carrying Vice President Al Gore from one fund-raiser to another.

So the vice president is safe, at least. But federal concern about security is curiously selective.

High-tech protection

Take, for example, encryption. Encryption is the technology that protects the privacy of computer files and communications systems. It is the ideal means of guarding information stored in computer systems -- which is ubiquitous now -- and protecting words and data exchanged on the Internet. Medical records, employment files and credit-card accounts are protected from intrusion by encryption codes and keys.

The federal government, which has tended to have trouble keeping pace with information technology, practices benign neglect on the subject of encryption: It permits the use of state-of-the-art technology for domestic consumption, and thus far, does not presume access to encrypted information. If you are told that the information you transmit by computer is secure, the chances are good that encryption is at work.

Yet, this same enlightened policy does not extend overseas. In fact, the Clinton administration specifically prohibits U.S. companies from exporting products with strong encryption features. Even encryption technology itself is proscribed: Although U.S. manufacturers are capable of producing the most sophisticated "128-bit" technology now on the market, they are not permitted to sell it abroad.

Why? The ostensible reason is security. The presumption is that such devices would fall into the wrong hands, and U.S. law enforcement agencies would not be able to move against foreign targets. But the truth is less commendable: The Clinton administration knows that the United States is being overtaken in encryption technology, and wishes only to buy time before a reckoning in the market.

This is not a simple conflict between commerce and security: Security is always a concern, of course, but it ought not to govern policy. Manufacturers in nearly two dozen foreign countries -- including Iran, Israel, Germany, Russia and Switzerland -- make products with significantly stronger encryption features than U.S. companies are permitted to sell on the global market.

The results are obvious: The United States is falling behind in encryption technology, and U.S. computer systems are increasingly vulnerable to foreign penetration. Encryption is a vital component of the digital age and electronic commerce: Short-sighted export controls do not just imperil "secure" systems, they cost the U.S. economy, and innumerable jobs, as well. Security, in a word, is breeding insecurity.

Representatives Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, who locked horns on impeachment in the Judiciary Committee, are united on this subject: They are co-sponsors of the Security and Freedom through Encryption (SAFE) Act, which is winding its way through the House.

This is security with brains as well as firepower. It would allow Americans to employ and sell whatever encryption technology they think is best for electronic systems, relax export controls and protect the privacy of Americans by ensuring their security.

This may not be as exciting as the spectacle of statesmen surrounded by ranks of guards. But in America's long-term interest, it is considerably more important.

Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence (R.I.) Journal.

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