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Not-So-Secret Secrets

May 23, 1999

Washington has become the woolly mammoth of international computer encryption policy: slow-moving, unable to adapt and obsolete. As the rest of the world continues to gain on the United States in digital matters, the policy gap grows ever more acute.

Before looking at two congressional bills that could change things, a definition of the intimidating word "encryption": It simply means conversion of information into codes that disguise its content.

When you stepped up from boxes containing 24 crayons to the 64-color set, your capacity to make an unfathomable artistic mess grew exponentially. Add even more colors--or computer bits in this case--and you have a superior palate for a far more elaborate mix.

At present the toughest encryption that the Clinton administration will allow American businesses to freely export has 56 bits, which to buyers amounts to having far fewer crayons, without the free sharpener. In today's world, 56-bit encryption codes can be broken in hours.

Fewer and fewer foreign clients will buy an American system with breakable encryption when they can acquire vastly superior 128-bit encryption from sources outside the United States. The practical effect has been to cut American business out of a lucrative and burgeoning international market for computer security.

The Clinton administration's argument that the export restrictions deter terrorists and criminals also is flawed. Powerful encryption can be obtained for use in illegal enterprises regardless of the U.S. controls. Furthermore, the courts have ruled Washington's policy unconstitutional.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is offering legislation that would allow the export of stronger encryption, but only with what seems to be unwieldy new layers of bureaucratic oversight. That includes the appointment of a 12-member Encryption Export Advisory Board, which would review every request to export stronger encryption.

By contrast, Rep. Bob Goodlatte's proposed SAFE Act has more than 200 co-sponsors and the support of the House Republican leadership. It would relax export controls and codify the right of Americans to use the strongest encryption available. The Virginia Republican's bill represents a better way. That's especially the case now that industry and research leaders in several foreign nations are competing to create a new and advanced encryption standard that might employ 256 bits.

U.S. policy is woefully behind the times and it needs to catch up--fast.

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