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Boosting cryptography's role in security.

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. One effect of such a change would be to encourage U.S. companies to include this high level of cryptographic security in their products. Congress is already considering legislation to relax export controls.

Even if the U.S. government heeds the suggestion, however, it may still be too little, too late, says Jim Bidzos of RSA Data Security in Redwood City, Calif. One Japanese company is already producing and selling throughout the world computer chips that offer considerably stronger cryptographic security than the Data Encryption Standard, he remarks. U.S. companies are currently shut out of this market.

The panel also concluded that the government plan to introduce so-called escrowed encryption is "relatively untried and entails its own potential risks." In this scheme, a third party (in addition to the message recipient) holds the digital keys required to unlock encrypted information (SN: 8/28/93, p. 394; 2/12/94, p. 100). Such an approach is attractive to law enforcement and national security agencies because with a court order they could obtain the relevant key from the third party and decipher the otherwise incomprehensible data.

"The NRC report is a very valuable contribution to this debate," says Bruce McConnell of the Office of Management and Budget and cochair of the interagency working group on cryptography policy. The report recognizes that a balance must be struck between computer security and concerns about national security and law enforcement. "Where we differ is in exactly how you achieve that balance," he notes.

"In the past, government officials have tended to treat many aspects of cryptography policy as top secret," Dam says. Most of the panel members had access to this classified information, and they concluded that such knowledge isn't essential for an informed public debate on cryptographic issues.
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Title Annotation:National Research Council report
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 8, 1996
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