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Group to attack Clinton on crypto

A bipartisan group of politicos, high-tech companies, and privacy advocates will announce a coalition to overturn the White House's encryption policy.

A bipartisan group of politicos, high-tech companies, and privacy advocates will next week announce a broad coalition to overturn the White House's current encryption policy through a multimillion-dollar media blitz and lobbying campaign.

Encryption secures digital communications, rendering it unreadable if intercepted. The technology is the center of a U.S. debate with federal criminal investigators asking Congress for access to the "keys" that unlock encrypted data on one side, and consumer groups and industry representatives arguing that such provisions make encryption products useless and constitute an invasion of privacy.

As reported by CNET's NEWS.COM yesterday, the formation of the coalition--Americans for Computer Privacy--signals a shift in the diligent, but Beltway-confined, fight against the White House's crypto stance. The players in the coalition will attempt to force encryption policy on the mainstream radar by convincing Americans that the government wants open access to their private digital discourse and computerized records.

"This will be an effort with very major financial backing, and this effort will be joined by a breathtaking coalition of interests," Jack Quinn, the coalition's legal adviser, told CNET's NEWS.COM, yesterday. Quinn is a senior partner with Arnold & Porter in Washington and is a former counsel to President Clinton.

"I think people will understand that the FBI director's [Louis Freeh] proposal for domestic encryption controls is really like asking them to make a duplicate of their front door key and leave it at the post office in case he wants to get inside...I don't think it will be hard to explain," he added.

The coalition, which began forming last August, is led by industry CEOs and has raised an estimated $15 million, sources say. The group's financial backers include the Software Publishers Association, Business Software Alliance, Information Technology Association of America, Microsoft, Netscape, and Oracle.

The hired guns heading up the coalition's strategy and media campaign also include Ed Gillespie, president of Policy Impact Communications and the strategist behind the Republican's 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 the same year.

In addition, Mindshare Internet Campaigns will be in charge of the online strategy and 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. Recruiting pamphlets with scant details about the coalition's membership, but with clearly laid out goals, were circulated at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference in Austin, Texas, last week.

These forces and other yet-to-be named members of the coalition will try, in about 50 calendar days remaining in Congress's session, to derail legislation already on the table that they say will prevent private online communication and inhibit U.S. software makers' ability to compete with foreign manufacturers.

The Americans for Computer Privacy will ramp up an ongoing battle to overturn Clinton administration regulations prohibiting the export of strong encryption products unless manufacturers make the codes available to law enforcement agencies. Legislation know as the SAFE Act was the vehicle for this export relief, but at least one version of the bill altered by the House Intelligence Committee would grant law enforcement access to encrypted protected communication in the United States. (See related story)

"Even if you don't have a PC at your home or office, still there is information about you that is computerized; maybe it's your medical or financial records. We want to make sure that the technology that can keep that information private stays that way," said Tom McMahon, a spokesman for the coalition, which officially will launch next Wednesday.

The group also plans to fight an FBI-backed bill that would require all federally funded computers to store encryption keys with a government-approved party, allowing law enforcement to unscramble documents without users' knowledge or even a court order in some cases. The FBI argues that criminals use encryption to transmit child pornography, to launder money, and to commit other high-tech crimes.

"BSA is involved in this broader coalition of users, industry, and privacy groups. We are coming together to push for a policy that is based on a voluntary, market-based system that is based on consumer demand vs. the government's demand to access your communication in a way that is unprecedented and violates privacy," Kim Willard, a spokeswoman for the BSA, said.

Consumers and businesses may want key-recovery systems set up in case they loose their key or an employee is fired or dies. If a key is lost, important data could be unreadable forever. But an alliance of 60 companies that promised to build the component into products is now clarifying their stance that key-recovery should not be mandatory. (See related story)

"SPA has no problem with key recovery--it's mandatory key recovery we have a problem with. The government should let the market decide," Lauren Hall, chief technologist for the SPA, said today.

The proencryption media campaign is expected to cost millions of dollars and will continue over the next eight months. The goal is to stimulate grassroots action against the bills that add more controls on cryptography. At the same time, the coalition's political heavyweights will be working with Congress members to secure a victory.

"They clearly want to get this out to broader public audiences and move outside the Beltway to focus on what the public has at stake in this the debate," said Richard Claussen, whose firm will work on the TV campaign. "The indication is that we want to move pretty aggressively on this."

Privacy and civil liberties groups are working closely with the coalition, but are not expected to sign on as members or fund-raisers. Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Civil Liberties Union, and Electronic Frontier Foundation met with Quinn last week to discuss the coalition's focus.

"We support their public education campaign whole-heartedly," David Sobel, legal counsel to EPIC, said today. "But as nonprofit civil liberties groups we don't feel comfortable handing over our ability to speak to what is in fact an industry coalition."