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Burns to reintroduce crypto legislation

A key senator says he will again try to ease restrictions on exporting the data scrambling technology.

    SAN JOSE--A key senator in the fight to loosen U.S. controls on encryption exports today said that he will again try to ease restrictions on the data scrambling technology.

    "I will introduce legislation early in the session, and I'd like to have a bill passed by next fall," affirmed Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), who twice before has unsuccessfully introduced the Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era Act. The so-called Pro-Code legislation is intended to allow U.S. firms to sell products overseas with stronger encryption than is permitted under current laws.

    The new legislation will closely resemble Pro-Code, Burns said in an interview. "I don't think it would be right to go for anything less," he stated.

    Burns said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), his ally on the encryption issue, supports the approach.

    The last version of Pro-Code, however, contained a controversial provision that would have created an "information security board" made up of representatives from federal agencies involved in developing information security policy and export controls on encryption. The board's meetings would have been closed, raising the hackles of privacy watchdogs.

    Burns's latest attempt appears to hinge more on backroom political calculations than any change of heart by the Clinton administration, which has been largely paralyzed and conflicted on encryption policy.

    The White House has essentially settled on a piecemeal export relief plan, cutting the red tape for e-commerce companies and financial institutions, but doing nothing to lift the controls on products for personal use, such as those that help secure email messages or other computer files. The U.S. crypto export standard has in fact been cracked on multiple occasions, unsettling PC users.

    The National Security Agency and law enforcement officials, particularly FBI director Louis Freeh, fear strong encryption would fall into the hands of terrorists and criminals who would use it to hide their communications or plans against U.S. interests.

    But proponents of export relief contend that the encryption products already freely available around the world are harder to crack than the technology that most U.S. companies are allowed to export.

    "I don't think NSA can be satisfied," said Burns, who added that its role in intelligence gathering is changing. "We're going to look at redundancy," he said, hinting that the agency might be advised take a softer line on encryption exports for the sake of its future.

    Now that Congress has authorized a law enforcement technology center to fight cyberterrorism, Burns believes its establishment will help sway Freeh. He characterized the FBI head, often demonized by the high-tech lobbyists for his position on encryption, as "honest in his dealings."

    Burns also excused Secretary of Commerce William Daley, whose agency issues export licenses for encryption products, saying Daley is stuck with a bad policy to administer.

    "It will be industry working with law enforcement and [the] National Security [Agency] that will get this done," Burns predicted in answering a question from a Secure Computing employee during his visit to the security technology firm. Burns was in town for a fundraising event sponsored by Technology Network, a bipartisan high-tech political lobbying group.

    Burns dismissed last week's announcement that 33 signatories to the international Wassenaar Arrangement will back U.S.-like export restrictions on mass-market cryptography, saying Administration officials have testified for the previous five years that such measures would be implemented.

    "It never happened, and our competitors beat the pants off us," Burns said.