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September 14, 1997updated 03 Sep 2016 7:27pm


By CBR Staff Writer

The House Select Intelligence Committee took a step towards the Dark Ages late last week with the passing of a bill to impose restrictions on the domestic use of encryption technology akin to those already imposed on technology meant for export. The substitute bill appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to another proposed by Virginian Republican Bob Goodlatte called the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act (SAFE), which proposed the abolition of all export restrictions. That triggered the FBI into action and its director Louis Freeh who advocated legislation to outlaw the manufacture, sales, import or distribution of any technology that does not have a suitable key recovery plan included enabling the feds to get access to the information. The restrictions – or lack of them – have to do with the length of the key employed. Current export restrictions require a special export license for anything above 40 bits, but those keys have been broken by students in only three hours. Licensees have been issued to some companies for keys up to 128 bits in length. Most other countries have no restrictions at all. Meantime, over at the House Commerce Committee, similar amendments to Goodlatte’s bill, this time proposed by Ohio Republican Mike Oxley and New York Democrat Thomas Manton have been proposed. But House leaders gave the committee an additional two weeks to work out the differences between all the various committees. The House Select Intelligence Committee said its proposal would require manufacturers to include key recovery features in all products incorporating encryption made or imported after January 31, 2000. However, the users, rather than the manufacturers have to enable the encryption features under the proposal and anything made before the deadline can continue to be used without key recovery. Earlier last week vice president Al Gore distanced the Clinton administration from the bill, which mirrored suggestions from Freeh made a Senate hearing two weeks ago. Goodlatte’s SAFE bill, which has the support of most of the US software industry, has already made it through the House Judiciary and International Relations Committees without significant alterations being made. The debate has suddenly switched from export controls to a specter of domestic criminals and terrorists taking advantage of the lack of key recovery. The next few weeks will decide whether or not the FBI’s gloomy scenario will prevail – something that could be very costly to the prospects of the US software industry.

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