Magazine article Insight on the News

Among Others, Big Brother Will Be Watching Web TV

Magazine article Insight on the News

Among Others, Big Brother Will Be Watching Web TV

Article excerpt

A consumer electronic device available at retail stores has been classified as a weapon by the U.S. government. While any American with $300 to spare can Purchase Web TV, manufactured for Philips Electronics Co. and Sony Electronics Inc., the Product cannot be exported overseas without a special license - putting it in the same category of sensitive technologies as some supercomputers and magnets necessary for the production of atom bombs.

Web TV is an electronic box that converts a television into an Internet terminal. It comes with E-mail capacity and enables viewers with low attention spans to browse the Web and watch reruns of I Love Lucy at the same time. The manufacturers are banking on the device to attract millions who are afraid of computers or see no reason to have one in their homes.

"But this is just the beginning," declares Sony's home page. "Sony has designed the Web TV Internet Terminal to provide even more advanced benefits' among them a "smart-card" slot for home shopping and banking. It is these "transactions in the future" that cause the government distress. Web TV makes use of encryption capacities security experts say could be exploited by terrorists and criminals to avoid monitoring by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.

Encryption scrambles the contents of any data or voice communication using a mathematical formula called an algorithm. Only the person holding a "key," or a string of numbers, can decrypt the information. The more numbers in a key, the more difficult it is to break the code. An ATM (automated teller machine) code of eight numbers, for instance, is immensely more complicated decipher than one of four numbers. (Currently, federal regulations permit the export of data-scrambling technology using keys of 40 bits or fewer. Web TV, on the other hand, has key containing 128 bits.)

The whole 128 is a nonissue," Michele Caselovela, a spokeswoman for sony, tells Insight. Web TV needs sophisticated encryption technology to ensure what she terms "supertight" security that Customers will expect when they make financial transactions over the Internet. She admits that it is conceivable that someone could face prosecution if he or She were to attempt to take Web TV abroad. Even Steve Perlman, chairman and chief executive of Web TV Networks Inc., has expressed his astonishment at the possibility. Can you imagine carrying one of our boxes under your arm and getting arrested at the border?" But Caselovela points out that there is no reason anyone would need to take the risk. European and Japanese televisions operate on different systems.

"I don't know what's gained by downplaying the issue of encryption and export controls," says Mark Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public-interest research group in Washington expressing puzzlement at Sony's official respond, On the contrary, he sees the issue gaining urgency as the Internet becomes more popular. There have been other cases in the realm of export control. But what distinguishes Web TV is that it isn't primarily an encryption device - it's a device for using the Internet with an encryption capacity built into it." And Web TV, he predicts, promises to be only the first of many similar devices soon to be marketed. There is a significant interest in relaxing export controls," he asserts. "The government's view is too narrowly focused."

Indeed, with the explosive growth in the Internet and computer-related industries, demand for cryptographic products has soared (see Business, P. …

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