WASHINGTON--In the latest effort to quell the ongoing tug-of-war over encryption, FBI director Louis Freeh met with powerful high-tech executives today to discuss federal restrictions on the technology to secure digital communication.
Coordinated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), the meeting was filled with high-level law enforcement officials such as Attorney General Janet Reno and industry CEOs such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and America Online's Steve Case.
Despite the powerhouse of players, it's no surprise that attendees left the meeting mum--with no encryption treaty in hand.
The struggle over encryption has been long-lived. On one side is law enforcement asking for increased access to the private keys that lock up communications of tech-savvy suspects. On the other side are privacy advocates and software makers, who say that encryption products that give police a back door aren't marketable and are too weak to secure email or data files.
Although a slew of bills have been introduced to relax export restrictions on encryption, the government's policy limiting the shipment of strong crypto products remains intact--with a few exceptions. The federal rules also require that products eventually support key-recovery systems, which help investigators access scrambled information.
Industry has been fighting to overturn these restrictions, but legislators are still waiting for a compromise that satisfies both law enforcement and industry.
As expected, today's meeting did not bring about a sea change in the debate.
The meeting was held in Feinstein's Capitol Hill office. The California senator is a new and unlikely facilitator in the crypto talks. Last fall, she and Kyl backed the FBI's request for mandatory key-recovery systems in domestic encryption products, a move that angered Silicon Valley consortia and privacy groups.
"In conversations with...Freeh," Feinstein said, "I learned that he had not had the opportunity to talk directly with the CEOs of American high-tech companies regarding his concerns on the use of encryption technologies." She added that she offered to put together a meeting and that the FBI director put together a list of CEOs to meet.
Freeh, the DOJ's Reno, and the computer executives entered the meeting stone-faced and grim, except Gates, who had a fixed smile. Two hours later, they emerged with the same expressions, ignoring the shouted questions of reporters crowded on the walkway outside Feinstein's office door.
A statement released by the executives used diplomatic language and offered no trace of a compromise.
"Today's meeting represents an important step in our collective efforts to have meaningful and productive dialogue about encryption," it said. "We enjoyed frank and open discussion and are confident this meeting will lead to further discussion throughout the government, and industry, as well as Congress."
The executives encouraged future talks with law enforcement officials. "It is important for law enforcement to hear from top industry leaders concerns about competitiveness in world markets and about the future of encryption in everyday commerce," the statement added. "It likewise is important for industry to hear from top law enforcement about concerns that widespread encryption poses for public safety and national security."
At a brief press conference after the meeting, Feinstein also offered few details about the talks. "We had a very good sharing of concerns of government and industry. I think everybody in the room wants to work cooperatively, and we will be talking again in that regard."
Kyl acknowledged that the two sides have not been on friendly terms. That, he suggested, was one reason for holding the meeting behind closed doors.
"Sometimes in the legislative arena, in order to protect your interests or make your points, you have to get out in front publicly, and that can sometimes impede cooperative discussion," he said.
"The reason that Sen. Feinstein called this meeting today was to get the parties talking again so that we can come together and reach a constructive solution," Kyl added. "We're going to try to do that again, and I think this was a very good first step."
The meeting was hardly a first step, though. Lawmakers and trade groups have tried in the past to break the impasse between government and industry over encryption.
The momentum is shifting against the government's stance. This year, Commerce Department secretary William Daley admitted that the U.S. policy was stifling the high-tech industry. In addition, 11 leading cryptographers have continued to report that key-recovery schemes pose grave risks to privacy.
Privacy advocates complained about not being invited to the table today, and they said that is one reason a solid plan didn't come from the meeting.
"Not one representative of the privacy community was included," said Graeme Browning, communications director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The CDT, as well as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others, have been deeply involved in the debate over encryption. "It's very hard to settle the issue without any of the players who know most about it," she noted.
Lisa Dean, vice president for technology policy at the Free Congress Foundation, agreed. "These closed-door meetings between the software industry and the Clinton administration have fostered nothing but the erosion of constitutional liberty in the past," she said. "The encryption issue is not just about exports. It's about empowering average citizens, and we can't count on the people in a meeting like this to protect our rights."
However, proponents of encryption rights will meet tomorrow with Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri), who has introduced one popular compromise: the E-Privacy Act. The bill would lift crypto export regulations for products that are generally available on the international market.
Pushed by the Americans for Computer Privacy group, the legislation also would prohibit the government from mandating within those products key-recovery systems or key escrow, in which copies of people's private crypto keys are stored with licensed third parties or the government.
Other tech-seasoned legislators are expected to be at the meeting with Ashcroft as well: Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R- Virginia), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), and Rep. Rick White (R-Washington).
The industry's Case, Price, Gates, and Schmidt will be there, too.