Freeh Wants to Beef Up Decoding Capability

Article excerpt

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told Congress yesterday that the government must be able to quickly unscramble coded private communications in order to track down criminals, terrorists and spies.

"To those of us charged with the protection of public safety and national security, encryption technology and its application in the information age . . . will become a matter of life and death in many instances which will directly impact on our safety and freedoms," Mr. Freeh told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on technology, terrorism and government information. The FBI director said the widespread use of "virtually unbreakable encryption" would allow drug dealers and other criminals to avoid wiretaps and other electronic surveillance, which he said are among the most effective tools used by law enforcement agencies.

"Law enforcement is in unanimous agreement that the widespread use of robust unbreakable encryption ultimately will devastate our ability to fight crime and prevent terrorism," he said. "Unbreakable encryption will allow drug lords, spies, terrorists and even violent gangs to communicate about their crimes and their conspiracies with impunity. We will lose one of the few remaining vulnerabilities of the worst criminals and terrorists upon which law enforcement depends to sucessfully investigate and often prevent the worst crimes."

Unless the government can gain access to encryption "keys" - mathematical formulas used to unscramble coded data - "our ability to investigate and sometimes prevent the most serious crimes and terrorism will be severely impaired," Mr. Freeh said. "Our national security will also be jeopardized."

The director testified about three pending Senate bills and one House bill that would loosen export restrictions on encryption - technology that scrambles data and communications to prevent them from being intercepted electronically. …