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Encryption bills need key to Congress

The Pro-Code bill--cryptography proponents' answer to restrictive White House policy--is back and looking for sponsors.

Is the second time a charm? Proponents of two federal encryption bills should find out soon, as their legislation starts anew on the long route toward becoming law after suffering repeated losses in last year's Congress.

In the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) yesterday reintroduced the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act. The SAFE bill gained bipartisan support last year but died toward the end of the session.

On the Senate side, the Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era Act--better known as the Pro-Code bill, thankfully--is expected to be introduced by Conrad Burns (R-Montana) the week of February 24, according to Burns's press secretary Matt Raymond.

Both bills gained attention last year for their opposition to a White House plan that ensures law enforcement officials access to messages scrambled with strong encryption. Pro-Code never saw a full Senate floor vote but garnered the support of a small but prominent bipartisan group, including then-Senate majority leader Bob Dole and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).

Apart from Burns, Leahy, and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), there are no other sponsors yet for the revived Pro-Code legislation.

Since the bill's defeat last year, the Clinton administration has liberalized its policy on the export of strong encryption software. The current rules state that a company can export 56-bit encryption, but U.S. law enforcement authorities must have access to its decryption keys quickly with a court order.

Because non-U.S. encryption software doesn't face such restrictions, the Clinton plan hinges on the administration's ability to persuade foreign governments to implement similar systems. If the government and its newly appointed cryptography envoy David Aaron are unsuccessful, buyers are likely to ignore U.S. products for less restrictive ones from foreign competitors.

Burns and other critics argue that the mandatory key-storage plan is bad for U.S. business and stifles development of the Internet as a commercial medium. Others simply don't trust that the government will not abuse the power.

Federal law enforcement agencies, mainly the FBI and the National Security Agency, argue that unimpeded access to strong encryption would give criminals unbreakable communications and hamper efforts to curb digital money laundering, pornography trafficking, and terrorism.