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Europe wants stronger encryption

The European Electronic Messaging Association says its companies are at a competitive disadvantage without access to strong U.S. cryptography.

The European Electronic Messaging Association has told the European Commission that European companies are at a competitive disadvantage without access to strong American-made cryptography, according to the organization.

The EEMA's efforts mirror the argument that the U.S. software industry has used for years. U.S software makers have long asserted that the Clinton administration's policy restricting the export of strong software encryption puts them at a competitive disadvantage, as they can only sell products--Netscape Communications' Navigator browser, for example--with strong encryption overseas after receiving government approval on a case-by-case basis. The lack of strong, secure software products necessary to protect electronic communication and commerce hurts European software users, developers, and resellers, the EEMA said.

"If this is not solved it will have severe implications for European companies' ability to do business in the international marketplace," EEMA chairman Alex Drobik said in last week's statement. "Vendors are unable to develop effective products, and as a result, users will not get the benefit of secure products."

The agency also blames the problem on the fragmented encryption policy among European Union members, some of whom are leaning toward the implementation of strict encryption controls. The Clinton administration would like European support to put a further stamp of legitimacy on its own efforts to retain emergency access to private, encrypted electronic messages.

Key escrow describes a system in which third parties such as notaries public or banks would hold a copy of an individual's decryption code, or "key." Under the latest White House plan, the U.S. software industry would help design and implement such a system, and law enforcement would have access to private keys only if armed with a court order. Previous administration plans, also criticized by software companies and privacy rights advocates, called for the government itself to store the keys and did not ask for industry cooperation in the design of the system.

In a letter to Karel Van Miert, the European commissioner for competition, the EEMA asked the EC to negotiate for an end to U.S. restrictions on U.S.-made software development kits needed to develop secure products. The organization also called for open availability of finished security products in the European Union as long as there are "no real security issues at stake."

Security issues are exactly what's at stake in the eyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other U.S. law agencies, however, as they have held fast to the claim that unregulated, unescrowed encryption would give overseas criminals who pose a threat to national security an uncrackable means of illicit communication.