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COLUMN ONE : Demanding the Ability to Snoop : Afraid new technology may foil eavesdropping efforts, U.S. officials want phone and computer users to adopt the same privacy code. The government would hold the only key.

Demanding the Ability to Snoop. FIRST OF TWO PARTS

October 03, 1993|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

When Charles and Diana discovered millions of people were reveling in their most intimate telephone calls, the world's most public couple had to face the facts of private life in the electronic age.

In a world of cellular phones, computer networks, electronic mail and interactive TV, the walls might as well have ears.

With the explosion of such devices, more people and companies--from banks to department stores--seem to have more access to more information that someone wants to keep private. In response, computer users are devising their own electronic codes to protect such secrets as corporate records, personal mail or automated teller transactions.

Historically, the biggest ears have belonged to the federal government, which has used surveillance techniques designed to track down criminals and security risks to keep electronic tabs on subjects ranging from civil rights leaders to citizens making overseas calls.

But, today, federal officials are afraid that advanced technology, which for almost 50 years has allowed them to conduct surveillance on a global scale, is about to make such monitoring impossible.

Now, federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies are insisting on their right to eavesdrop.

The government is proposing a standardized coding, or encryption, system that would eliminate eavesdropping by anyone except the one holder of the code's key--the government itself.

To ensure that federal agents and police can continue to wiretap communications, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is introducing a national electronic code. It will cover all telephone systems and computer transmissions, with a built-in back door that police can unlock with a court order and an electronic key.

White House and FBI officials insist they have no way to force any company to adopt the new technology. They will not outlaw other forms of coding, they said.

But experts say a series of regulatory actions involving Congress, the State Department, the U.S. attorney general, export licensing restrictions and the purchasing power of the federal government will effectively force people to use the code.

The government's plan has triggered an outcry among computer users, civil rights groups and others. The American Civil Liberties Union and groups of computer professionals say the plan raises major constitutional questions. Federal laws are designed to limit the government's ability to wiretap, not guarantee it, they say.

"Where does the U.S. government get the right to understand everything that is transmitted?" asked Michel Kabay, director of education for the National Computer Security Assn. in Carlisle, Pa.

Not so many years ago, powerful encryption techniques were the monopoly of military and intelligence agencies. Over time, computer experts and corporate cryptographers created codes to protect their private communications. Some of these scramble electronic signals so thoroughly that even the supercomputers of the National Security Agency cannot decipher them. One of the best codes, called Pretty Good Privacy, is free and can be downloaded from computer network libraries around the world--yet it still contains safeguards that protect its secrets from prying eyes.

Combined with advances in fiber optics and digital communications, these codes enable people to send electronic mail, computer files and faxes the government cannot read, and to make phone calls even the most sophisticated wiretapper cannot understand.

As new technologies converge to form the roadbed of a national information superhighway, the government faces the prospect of millions of people around the world communicating in the absolute privacy of the most secure codes science can devise.

At the same time, hundreds of phone companies channel calls through new digital switches into long-distance fiber-optic cables where, translated into light-speed laser pulses, they may elude interception more easily. Dozens of other companies are organizing global wireless digital networks to send phone calls, faxes and computer files over the airwaves to people no matter where they are or how often they move.

Given all this, NIST officials say the new code, called Skipjack, is the government's attempt to strike a balance between personal privacy and public safety.

They say it will protect people from illicit eavesdropping, while allowing an authorized government agent to unlock any scrambled call or encrypted computer message. It could be incorporated into virtually every computer modem, cellular phone and telecommunications system manufactured in the United States.

Designed by the National Security Agency, which conducts most of the country's communications surveillance, the code is one facet of an ambitious government blueprint for the new information age.

But critics say the code is just one of several steps by federal law enforcement groups and intelligence agencies to vastly expand their ability to monitor all telecommunications and to access computer databases.

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