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Legislators protest tight encryption policy

A bipartisan group of federal legislators calls for the Clinton administration to loosen restrictions on the export of encryption technologies.

A bipartisan group of federal legislators is calling for the Clinton administration to loosen restrictions on the export of encryption technologies.

Earlier this week, 20 Senate and House members sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor to "express our serious concern about the administration's most recent announcement on export restrictions on encryption technology."

The 4 Democrats and 16 Republicans said the policy, announced October 1, is too restrictive. The legislators worry that the policy will do more harm than good to American companies.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who organized the anti-encryption campaign, "fundamentally believes that efforts to limit trade in encryption technologies is harmful to American businesses, harmful to American workers, harmful to the trade balance, and do not in fact do anything to improve national security," spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said.

The administration's encryption plan allows for the export of slightly more powerful encryption than what had previously been legal, with one major proviso: that the numerical keys that unlock the encryption code are kept by a third, nongovernmental party. Law enforcement officials would only be allowed access to the keys with a court order.

The legislators' letter criticizes the policy on several points: "It fails to recognize that top-down, government-imposed policies are doomed to defeat," the letter states. "Export policies must be directly linked, or indexed to advances in technology [and] export controls must be fully multilateral in order to be effective."

The letter further criticizes the policy for "granting the FBI veto authority over U.S. exports."

But the administration defends its plans, saying the criticisms are unfounded.

Heidi Kukis, Vice President Al Gore's spokeswoman said today that the president, not the FBI, is the only one who has veto power over the export of encryption.

She added that the government itself will not hold the key but will have access to it with a court order, much like the government can get access to telephone lines through a court order to "track down criminals and terrorists."

She also argued that the new policy in fact loosens, rather than tightens export restrictions. Previously, the State Department had jurisdiction over encryption and classified it as a "munition," which made it much more difficult to export, Kukis said. Now it is being placed under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, where it is categorized as a "duel use technology" for civilian or defense uses, a much less restrictive classification, she said.

Not all are opposed to the policy. In fact, an alliance of 11 software and hardware have banded together to develop the key-recovery solutions for which the Clinton administration's plan called.

"The federal government has never dictated how the key recovery system will be billed," Kukis added. "That is up to the industry. What the federal government has done is to set the broad objectives which are to promote the export of encryption products, but to do so in a way that protects both the public safety and our national security."