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Winning the crypto war

Advocates of strong encryption--using complex mathematics to scramble information so others can't read it--had a rough 1997. Instead of winning relaxed rules on selling products with strong encryption overseas, they found themselves fighting a rear guard action with the FBI, which wants to limit strong crypto domestically.

Advocates of strong encryption--using complex mathematics to scramble information so others can't read it--had a rough 1997. Instead of winning relaxed rules on selling products with strong encryption overseas, they found themselves fighting a rear guard action with the FBI, which wants to limit strong crypto domestically.

Ironically, 1997 was supposed to be a good year. In January, responsibility for issuing export licenses shifted from the State Department to the supposedly sympathetic U.S. Commerce Department.

Unless proencryption forces, which include many hardware and software companies, change their tactics, 1998 will prove to be another disappointment.

Too many in the strong crypto crowd would rather be right than win. So they pursue pure, principled, losing strategies instead of playing the political game in Washington, D.C.

The encryption debate shifted mid-year, catching the technology lobby in Washington off guard. In July, FBI director Louis Freeh worried aloud that domestic use of encryption should be controlled.

In more direct testimony in September, Freeh suggested stronger domestic limits, emboldening key legislators--including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) who, rather oddly, represents Silicon Valley--to suggest encryption controls.

Until then straddling the fence, the Clinton Administration disavowed Freeh's comments the next day but didn't make the FBI director back down.

The FBI's abrupt move was unanticipated, but Freeh has fared well because the strong crypto crowd has been ineffectual.

To the world at large, the debate looks like greedy high-tech firms vs. the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies. The tech vendors want to make more money while the cops and the spies want to protect national security and public safety.

Guess who wins that debate in public opinion.

Too much of the procrypto campaign has been conducted "inside the Beltway," and no one's making the broader case for strong encryption.

"Circle the White House" is how one crypto lobbyist described the strategy earlier this year: Build support in Congress for liberalized rules on exporting strong encryption products, isolate the wavering White House, and force it to loosen the laws.