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Computer privacy group kicks off

A coalition of strategists and high-tech executives launches a multimillion-dollar drive to rally against Clinton's encryption policy.

A high-powered coalition that is spearheading a multimillion-dollar campaign to make computer privacy a top concern for Americans already has gained the ear of the White House, the group said today.

As reported last week, Americans for Computer Privacy (ACP) has formed to overturn federal export limits on strong encryption, which secures digital communications, rendering it unreadable if intercepted. The group, which officially kicked off today, has raised an estimated $15 million to create a media blitz to attack the White House's crypto policy and to derail legislation that could give domestic law enforcement access to the keys that unlock many citizens' encrypted messages or files.

The coalition brings together top political strategists and high-tech executives who say the Clinton administration's crypto policy and FBI-backed legislation threaten the privacy of online communication and digital records, as well as inhibiting U.S. software makers' ability to compete with foreign manufacturers of securities products. The ACP will try to convince the public to reject federal law enforcement's argument that it needs the ability to unscramble data during criminal investigations.

The administration has agreed to meet with the ACP to discuss drafting a more balanced encryption policy, Jack Quinn, former counsel to President Clinton who is now advising the ACP, said today during a press conference in Washington. White House officials couldn't be reached immediately for comment.

In addition, Congress is gearing up its probe of the issue. On March 17, the Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing focusing on encryption and the constitutional right to privacy.

"This debate is about nothing less than the kind of relationship the American people will have with the government in the information age," Quinn said today.

The ACP will work "to make certain that Americans are not prohibited from using privacy software at home [and] to enable the creators of that technology and others to export it overseas where it is already readily available from other sources," he added.

The group wants to engage not only computer users, but also anyone whose private files--such as medical records or bank accounts--are computerized.

"The formation of this group is a wake-up call...that Americans want our privacy. The second issue is that we want our businesses to be able to compete in this new economy worldwide," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) said at the press conference.

Law enforcement officials have argued they have the right to access to encrypted files that are part of investigations.

"Uncrackable encryption is now and will continue, with ever increasing regularity, to allow drug lords, terrorists, and even violent gangs to communicate about their criminal intentions with impunity and to maintain electronically stored evidence of their crimes impervious to lawful search and seizure," FBI Director Louis Freeh said in prepared testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in January. "Other than some type of key-recoverable system, there is currently no viable technical solution to this problem for law enforcement."

The ACP began forming last August, and includes the Software Publishers Association, the Business Software Alliance, the Information Technology Association of America, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, as well as high-tech giants Microsoft, Netscape Communications, and Oracle.

Despite President Clinton's technology-friendly rhetoric, his encryption policy has made him unpopular with the industry. Even the Clinton administration itself is somewhat divided over regulations prohibiting the export of strong encryption products unless manufacturers make the codes available to law enforcement agencies with court orders. (See related story)

The bipartisan coalition will create commercials to gain public support to reverse the administration's policy. Along with Quinn, the power-brokers behind the coalition are Ed Gillespie, president of Policy Impact Communications and the strategist behind the Republicans' sweeping 1994 legislative package known as the Contract with America; and the firm of Goddard-Claussen, which is best known for creating the famous "Harry and Louise" commercials that helped defeat the president's health care reform initiative in 1994.

Mindshare Internet Campaigns will be in charge of the online strategy and the Web site for the coalition, using the Net to generate offline letters and calls to lawmakers. The Dittus Group is in charge of public relations.

As reported, privacy and civil liberties groups say they will work closely with the coalition, but are not joining the ACP as members or fund-raisers. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) say they support the stated goal of the ACP, however.

"We welcome the enhanced presence of the business community in the campaign to combat the Clinton administration's policy of restricting the strong use of encryption," EFF president Barry Steinhardt said today in a joint statement for the groups. "Encryption software is a vital technology for protecting American citizens' privacy and guarding U.S. commercial security, and we want to work with our industry allies to remove the current export controls and to ward off all domestic controls."

Along with 28 trade groups and more than 70 companies, pro-encryption lawmakers have signed on as well, including: Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), Rep. Rick White (R-Washington), and Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Connecticut).