Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

House tries crypto bill again

Still battle-worn from failed efforts to ease crypto export limits, lawmakers again are trying to cut the red tape for U.S. firms that sell the data-scrambling technology.

2 min read
Still battle-worn from failed efforts to ease encryption export limits, federal lawmakers again are trying to cut the red tape for U.S. companies that sell the data-scrambling technology.

As promised, Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and Zoe Lofgren (D-California) today revived the Security and Freedom Through Encryption (SAFE) Act.

SAFE protects the right to use encryption domestically and simplifies the governmental review process for exporting strong products. The bill also prohibits mandatory "key-escrow" or "key-recovery" systems, which give law enforcement a spare key to crack encrypted data. Still, the bill does contain a controversial provision that makes it a crime to use encryption while committing a felony.

The bill gained 249 sponsors in the House last year but died after going through five renditions--one of which aimed to give law enforcement quick access to unlock secure messages within the United States during criminal investigations.

Encryption has been the center of a more than six-year battle between national security officials, who want to tightly monitor distribution of the data security technology, and the high-tech industry and civil liberties advocates, who say global companies and citizens should have unfettered access to the most powerful U.S. products to secure their private digital communication.

The Clinton administration has reduced export requirements for some industry sectors--such as banking and e-commerce--after a one-time review by the Commerce Department. The rules essentially allow for the free export of 56-bit encryption, but that standard has been cracked before and privacy groups say the changes don't benefit individuals.

In January, Lofgren said that the administration concessions don't go far enough, but that SAFE would include compromises made with the administration last year, such as supporting the FBI's proposal to build a one-stop shop--dubbed the National Electronic Technology Center--to study the cracking of sophisticated encryption algorithms.

And proponents of crypto export reform may have a better shot in Congress this year as major foes are no longer around.

For instance, in New York, Republican Rep. Gerald Solomon has retired. When he was chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, he prevented Goodlatte and Lofgren's bill from coming to a vote. Rep. David Dreier (R-California), who favors export relief, now heads the committee. One past opponent to relief--Sen. Bob Kerrey (D- Nebraska)--also has now switched sides in the debate. Still, House Speaker Dennis Hastert fiercely advocates encryption limits, and could put up roadblocks if the issue comes to a floor vote.

Despite the lawmakers' campaign, Clinton administration officials have been accused of promoting stronger crypto controls elsewhere even while they scale back regulations at home.

For example, the Wassenaar Arrangement, adopted by 33 nations in December, could impose strict new export controls on encryption elsewhere. Japan, Germany, Britain, and others agreed to allow the easy export of 64-bit encryption, but the move also marks the first time many of the nations have imposed controls on mass-market encryption software.