Congress members back encryption

A U.S. senator who favors looser limits on strong encryption says he'll hold hearings to discuss potential constitutional issues that relate to encryption.

2 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--A key U.S. senator who favors looser limits on strong encryption said today that he'll hold hearings this spring before his subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss potential constitutional issues that relate to the fiery encryption debate.

Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) hinted that he intends to use the hearings to explore arguments that limiting the use of strong encryption could violate the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the provisions that guarantee free speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

"While national security and law enforcement ought to be discussed, the discussion clearly should include the public interest in privacy, the business interest in privacy, and the interest in the public and business community about unlawful search and seizure in the Bill of Rights," Ashcroft said in comments by satellite today to the RSA Data Security conference, where 3,000 crytographers, software developers, hardware engineers, and the companies that sell to them gathered.

A Republican advocate of strong encryption also put a twist on the encryption debate, arguing that strong encryption is a key anticrime measure.

Also by satellite, Congressman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia turned the encryption debate against espionage and law enforcement officials who claim strong crypto will help criminals and terrorists hide their evil deeds.

"This legislation is an anticrime measure of the first order," Goodlatte said. "Passing it to be sure every American has strong encryption, e-commerce can grow, and the infrastructure of our country is protected from terrorists and hackers is a strong anticrime effort."

"The bad guys already have access to encryption. This legislation is needed to make sure every law-abiding American has access to it too," he added.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-California), who appeared in person at the conference, urged the security professionals to get involved in lobbying, saying the bill will come before the House of Representatives this spring.

"Many policymakers are living in an analog world, so they are susceptible to being misled," Lofgren said, referring to classified briefings intelligence and law enforcement agencies give. "Many members of the House are not yet proficient technologically to move forward under their own power--they need hand-holding, especially when the director of the FBI makes statements that show he's not steeped in technology."

Goodlatte said strong encryption is needed by law-abiding citizens and companies to protect electronic commerce and the nation's sensitive infrastructure from bad guys.

Goodlatte also termed FBI director Louis Freeh's proposal to require key escrow for domestic users, moving beyond efforts to put conditions on encryption exports, a "frontal assault."

"Robust encryption is essential to national security of the United States and to economic productivity," Ashcroft argued, as well as to the personal security and privacy of individuals.

However, Stratton Sclavos, chief executive of certificate authority VeriSign, predicted "another year of policy hell" in 1998.