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Authorities make case on encryption

Security officials pleaded their case in the second round of encryption legislation hearings.

National security officials pleaded their case for strong government control of encryption technology to the Senate Commerce Committee today in hearings on a bill that would relax current restrictions on the export of heavily encrypted software.

The hearings were cybercast from Senate chambers--the second such event in a month--with live audio, digital photos, and interactive chat forums available on various Web sites.

FBI Director Louis Freeh and National Security Agency deputy director William Crowell, Undersecretary of the Bureau of Export Administration for the Department of Commerce William Reinsch, Netscape Communications President and CEO James Barksdale, Director of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist, Tandem Computer President and CEO Roel Pieper, and Former Ambassador to Venezuela Michael Skol all testified today.

RealAudio users tuning in heard Freeh and Crowell argue in favor of a key management, or "escrow," system that would give the government quick access to private decryption codes, enabling authorities to read any electronic messages implicated in criminal investigations.

"Conventional encryption not only can prevent electronic surveillance efforts, which in terms of numbers are conducted sparingly, but it can also prevent police officers on a daily basis from conducting basic searches and seizures of computers and files," said Freeh.

The Clinton administration indicated that it would relax export restrictions in exchange for such an escrow system.

The Pro-Code bill, sponsored by Conrad Burns (R-Montana) and supported by a coalition of civil libertarians and software industry leaders, would relax export controls and outlaw any key escrow system because of claims that it would inhibit use of the Internet for sensitive business and private affairs.

Opponents of key escrow systems argue that regardless of the privacy concerns involved, they won't work to control crime because strong encryption technology is already available overseas so that any determined criminals could obtain the means to communicate in electronic secrecy, regardless of American policy.

To counter this argument, the NSA's Crowell argued today that the technology widely available now is weak and easily broken, presumably because of American export controls, that most users would choose to comply with the government's regulations, and that encryption is not as widely used as people think anyway. "Encryption will not be used widely until there is an infrastructure in place to support very large numbers of people," Crowell told the committee.

Freeh also testified that other countries' law enforcement agencies are as nervous about the bill as the United States'. "When the U.S. let it be known it was considering allowing the export of encryption stronger than now permitted, several of our close allies expressed strong concerns that we would be flooding the global market with unbreakable cryptography, increasing the likelihood of its use by criminal organizations and terrorists through Europe and the world," said Freeh.

The cybercast was sponsored by the Center for Democracy and Technology and the organizer of the event, with help from online magazine HotWired, Voters Telecommunications Watch, and Internet service provider Digex.

The cybercast was at times inaudible, with crackling and dropouts garbling the testimony, but Seiger said the system wasn't prepared to handle what he estimated as more than 1,000 users. Sitting in the hearing room with a laptop, Seiger and Senate aides also moderated an online chat forum that was constantly filled to capacity. "We had so much interest that we overwhelmed the RealAudio server," said Jonah Seiger, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We were maxing out the stream capacity."

At one point, a network administrator at the Massachussets Institute of Technology reported to the forum that 108 copies of Pretty Good Privacy encryption shareware had been downloaded from the MIT site during the three-hour hearings.