House panel approves crypto bill

A House subcommittee approves a bill that would eliminate most restrictions on the export of encryption technology.

CNET News staff
2 min read
A House subcommittee today approved a bill that would remove most of the Clinton administration's current restrictions on the export of encryption technology.

The Security and Freedom through Encryption Act, approved by the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and intellectual property, is similar to the Pro-Code bill now in the Senate. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), now goes before the full Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Both bills are intended to eliminate the White House's export regulations on strong encryption, basically letting software vendors export crypto technology of any strength provided that it is being used for legal purposes.

The administration requires that firms seeking to export encryption algorithms 56 bits or longer get a special permit from the Commerce Department. Companies must also make sure that the government can get the key to decode any encrypted communication implicated in a criminal investigation.

The longer the encryption code, the harder it is to break. Many Internet and e-commerce vendors would like to see these regulations lifted to encourage businesses to use the strongest encryption possible, thereby better protecting sensitive information passed over the Internet.

A coalition of computer companies, trade organizations, and privacy rights advocates generally support both pieces of legislation but are worried about provisions in the SAFE bill that would levy stiff penalties on anyone who uses encryption technology in a crime, such as laundering money electronically.

These provisions remain in the bill approved today, although the 15 subcommittee members could have amended it. The provisions call for up to five years in prison or a fine for a first offense and up to ten years or a fine for a subsequent violation.

Dave Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said the coalition opposed to the criminal penalty provisions expected no changes in subcommittee. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) and subcommittee chairman Howard Coble (R-North Carolina) mentioned their concerns with the provisions, however, and said they would work to change them in full committee deliberations, according to Banisar.

However, the bill's sponsors believe that the penalties might persuade the president to sign the bill rather than veto it. The administration doesn't want encrypted communications to hamper criminal investigations or allow national secrets to cross borders without a trace.

"The criminalization parts are trying to address the administration's concerns," said Ellen Stroud, press secretary for Goodlatte.

Proponents of the bill, which has drawn more than 75 cosponsors since its reintroduction in February, expressed hope that it will go before a full committee vote in the next few weeks based on the subcommittee's recommendation.

"The full committee has so far not expressed interest in holding hearings, so they're happy with the information they've gotten from the subcommittee [hearings]," Stroud said.