Magazine article Reason

Know the Code: Making Encryption Safe, Legal - and Not Rare

Magazine article Reason

Know the Code: Making Encryption Safe, Legal - and Not Rare

Article excerpt

Since taking office in 1993, the Clinton administration has clashed with high-tech companies and privacy advocates over electronic data encryption, the use of mathematical formulas to scramble messages sent over computer networks. The White House has regulated encryption so that law enforcement agencies can easily unscramble messages sent by suspected criminals. Individuals and organizations want to remove these restrictions so that they can ensure the privacy of their communications.

Congress may choose privacy. Three pending bills would bypass current regulations, allowing Americans to use any encryption programs they desire. They would also make it tougher to impose new restrictions on commercial cryptography.

The White House has used Cold War-era regulations that treat encryption as a weapon to restrict the length of the encryption "keys" that can be exported without first obtaining a license from the Commerce Department. The keys unscramble encrypted messages; the shorter the key, the easier the encryption is to crack. The administration also plans to allow companies to sell stronger encryption programs only if the keys are deposited with law enforcement or national security officials (a.k.a. "key escrow").

As a result, software makers have not developed the strongest possible encryption programs for the general public because they won't write separate programs for domestic and foreign customers. And no sensible overseas consumer would buy encryption knowing that its private communications would be subject to U. …

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