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U.S. one of few restricting crypto

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that have restricted or want to restrict the domestic use of encryption, a new survey says.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that have restricted or want to restrict the use of encrypted software and communications within its borders, according to a survey released today.

The survey was conducted by online rights advocate the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on behalf of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, a group opposed to what it sees as a spread of digital surveillance techniques and efforts by various governments.

The group challenges the Clinton administration's claim that many of the world's industrialized countries are willing to fall into line with the United States' plan to create a worldwide encryption system. Such a system, dubbed a "global key management infrastructure," would require users of encryption to store their "keys"--secret mathematical codes--with government-approved storehouses.

Law officials then would be able to access the codes to crack open the encrypted messages of suspected criminals. But such a system would invite abuse of power and allow governments to spy on the activities of legitimate organizations such as human rights watchdogs and political opposition, critics charge.

Officials at the Commerce Department, which administers the federal encryption export laws, were not immediately available for comment.

However, Commerce Undersecretary William Reinsch told the New York Times that the study does not contradict the administration's claims.

"All the administration has ever said is that there are more countries that go farther than we do," Reinsch said. "The study confirms that. And what I've gone on to say is that in talks with other countries, they are moving in our direction. I don't think the study itself does anything to contradict that."

The survey cited Belarus, China, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and Singapore as countries where domestic use of encryption is controlled. Countries now considering such controls include the United States, India, and South Korea, the report said.

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped up its efforts to have Congress enact a bill that gives the bureau and other law enforcement agencies the right to decode and read U.S. citizens' encrypted messages as they are transmitted.

EPIC contacted 230 countries and territories about their cryptographic policies. For the countries that didn't respond, the survey's authors used previous studies conducted by U.S. government agencies.

The following are examples of other results from various industrialized countries:

  • France has strict laws concerning the import and use of cryptography. But those laws seem to be in flux, according to the report, as the new Socialist government is leaning toward liberalization.

  • Japan has no restrictions on the import or domestic use of encryption. However, the country tightened its export laws last summer.

  • In Germany, Economics Minister Guenter Rexrodt has been a vocal supporter of unregulated encryption. However, a law signed into effect last summer requires the registration of public keys for digital signatures with "third parties."

  • Israel's Ministry of Defense heavily regulates the import, export, domestic use, and production of encryption.

  • Australia does not have import controls on encryption. In December 1996, it relaxed its export control laws to allow a personal-use exemption for encryption that remains in the hands of Australian users.

  • Taiwan has no domestic controls but restricts the export of encryption.

  • The United Kingdom does not appear to restrict domestic use or import of encryption, but the country has strict rules concerning the export of such software. The newly elected Labor government also has pledged not to impose domestic regulations.