Boosting Cryptography's Role in Security

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, June 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Boosting Cryptography's Role in Security


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


The U.S. State Department has regulations restricting the export of cryptographic software. Applying these rules, however, can lead to contradictory actions.

In 1994, officials ruled that a cryptography textbook that contained complete computer programs for several strong cryptographic schemes was freely exportable. Yet, when the same programs were put on a computer diskette, the department argued that the diskette qualified as a "defense article" and required a special license for export.

These rulings were obtained by Philip R. Karn Jr., a network engineer who works for Qualcomm in San Diego, to test the regulations governing the export of cryptographic technology. Karn's appeal of the decisions remains mired in the courts. Last week, a panel of the National Research Council released a report, "Cryptography's Role in Securing the Information Society," to highlight the importance of cryptography for the future of information technology and to point out shortcomings in current government policy on export controls.

Representing a wide range of interests, the 16-member panel recognized a tremendous and widespread need for technology to encrypt electronic information, making it easier to protect financial data, telecommunications networks, and other assets from crime and terrorism. Such technology could also provide greater privacy for individuals and boost the competitiveness of U.S. companies in international markets, the panel argued.

"Current [government] policy discourages the use of cryptography," says panel chair Kenneth W. Dam of the University of Chicago Law School. The panel members strongly endorsed the idea that no law should restrict the manufacture, sale, or use of any form of encryption within the United States. It recommended progressively relaxing, though not eliminating, export controls on encryption technology.

Products incorporating a highly regarded cryptographic scheme known as the Data Encryption Standard should be easier to export, the panel suggested. …

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