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Uncle Sam Needed for Net Security

BOSTON--Getting the government involved in maintaining Internet data privacy may not be popular, but it's going to be necessary. That's the message Netscape Communications chair Jim Clark delivered this morning in his keynote address to an audience here at Email World and Internet Expo.

To secure Net communications, the government will need to have access to private data exchanges using what is known as a key escrow security system, said Clark. He added that an invincible security system for the Net is possible, but such a system won't be built unless the government has a stake in it. "That's where key escrow comes in," said Clark.

Key escrow is a controversial security system advocated by the Clinton administration that gives the government access to private Net communications. It uses public key cryptography, a system in which messages are coded and decoded using a set of private and public keys. In key escrow, the private key is held by both the individual or group and the government. The government can use the key ostensibly to read messages for intelligence and national security reasons.

Currently the U.S. government restricts export of strong keys in excess of 40 bits so it can break the code if necessary. The weaker keys, however, make the messages vulnerable to other attacks as well. A group of French scientists, for example, cracked Netscape software using 40-bit keys by employing a network of supercomputers over the course of a week. According to Clark, though, restricting the export of stronger software isn't the answer. "That's the wrong solution; we need bulletproof keys."

Netscape's stock price soared $20 yesterday based on a buy recommendation by Goldman Sachs. The stock continues to climb today: the share price is up $9 to $140. Clark said Netscape is trying to keep pace with everyone's expectations. "The Internet is a gargantuan opportunity, but it's up to us to take advantage of it."

Expect to see more fluctuations. Said Steve Weiss, a principal at Product Management Group in San Francisco, "Anything like this that is so closely allied to wishes, bets, and beliefs is likely to move up and down quite a bit." The run up is a reflection of the promise the Internet holds for investors. After all, added Weiss, "the stock market is the mirror of the soul of the Internet."
[Additonal reporting by Denise Shelton.]