July 25, 1996
Web posted at: 11:59 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- FBI Director Louis Freeh
warned Congress on Thursday that allowing
uncontrolled export of U.S. computer security
codes may help international criminals and
hide their activities from law enforcement.
"Encryption products used unchecked by criminals
and terrorists for their illegal activities pose an
extremely serious and, I believe, unacceptable
threat," Freeh told the Senate
Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Legislation pending in the Senate would permit
U.S. companies to export high-tech
encryption devices that ensure greater privacy
for computer files, electronic mail
messages and systems such as stock exchange
Sponsors said the bill would "help America
maintain our superiority in software
development" and guard against unwarranted
"It is irrelevant that we can make a better
product if we cannot sell it," said Sen. John
Ashcroft, R-Missouri, one of the sponsors.
The Clinton administration has proposed that
encryption exports be allowed only if a
decoding "key" for the devices is left with a
third party -- such as a bank or insurance
company -- so that law enforcement personnel
with a court order could break the
code, if necessary.
Freeh said such an arrangement would safely
open profitable foreign markets for
U.S. software companies. The Internet, he said,
"was never intended as a place
without police officers. We need cops there, as
we do elsewhere, to protect people,
to guard their rights."
The encryption codes available today are so
powerful, Freeh said, that it would take
the FBI more than a year to decode a single
message in some cases. Ramzi Yousef,
on trial in New York on charges of plotting to
bomb a dozen U.S. airliners, used a
laptop computer containing files the FBI still
hasn't been able to decode, he added.
Sponsors and industry officials noted, however,
that many of these devices are
already available abroad, and anyone can
download them free from the Internet.
They can also be sold within the United States
at local computer stores.
"The criminal element the administration is
trying to prevent from obtaining this
technology already has it," said Roel Pieper,
president of Tandem Computers Inc.
"The only ones who suffer as a result of this
policy is the U.S. industry."
Netscape Communications Corp. President Jim
Barksdale estimated his company
will lose $40 million this year in potential
export sales for encryption products.
But a top official at the National Security
Agency -- whose job is to break secret
codes -- said the encryption "genie is not out
of the bottle." NSA Deputy Director
William Crowell said encryption won't be widely
used until it is marketed and sold,
with support to help people use it.
"The administration's proposal is not designed
to keep the plug in the bottle, but to
help provide a full range of trusted security
services," Crowell said.
Industry executives also said use of the
decoding keys would be costly and raises
questions about government access to private
business and personal information,
such as bank and medical records.
"Keys can be compromised in many ways. They can
be stolen, revealed by
disgruntled employees or obtained through
bribery," Pieper said.
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