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Coalition of Companies Offers Encryption Plan

July 14, 1998|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — A coalition of the largest computer and software companies on Monday unveiled a plan that would allow the federal government access to encrypted computer software while protecting the privacy of customers who buy the programs.

The new plan, led by Cisco Systems Inc., the leading maker of Internet equipment, represents a partial resolution of a debate between those favoring unlimited use of encryption, or encoding, and national security officials who fear unregulated use of it would help criminals evade detection.

The 10 companies said they designed the system, called "private doorbells," to meet strict export rules that sharply limit the sale of their products containing encryption to customers outside the United States.

The proposal must be approved by the Commerce Department's Bureau of Export Administration, which oversees the encryption export restrictions, with input from other agencies. Industry officials said they worked closely with the government as they crafted the plan and expect rapid approvals.

A Commerce Department spokeswoman welcomed the plan but said the requests for export raised "serious issues that must be considered in the interagency export review process."

Under the plan, data sent over computer networks could be encrypted, or mathematically scrambled, by the software running the network or the hardware managing the flow of data.

The information would be unscrambled when it reaches its final destination. That would protect the data, whether a business e-mail message or a consumer's credit card number, from being intercepted by hackers while in transit over the Internet or a private network using the companies' products.

With proper authority such as a court-approved search warrant, law-enforcement agencies could ask the operator of a network to decode a specific message.

But the system would not prevent users from encrypting their information before sending it over the network, thus thwarting law-enforcement access.

In addition to Cisco, companies filing for export approval were rivals Ascend Communications Inc., Bay Networks Inc. and 3Com Corp.; computer workstation maker Sun Microsystems Inc.; Hewlett-Packard Co.; computer security companies Network Associates, Secure Computing Corp. and RedCreek Communications Inc.; and software maker Novell Inc.

The plan also won support from Internet software rivals Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. and computer chip giant Intel Corp.

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