US crypto export controls are bunk

Who's afraid of the NSA now?

The American intelligence establishment has suffered its share of embarrassments lately, from a North Korean missile sailing over Japan in spite of the CIA's repeated insistence that no such development was possible, to Chinese scientists nonchalantly walking off with the country's most jealously-guarded nuclear secrets, to the CIA's former director, John Deutch, losing his security clearance over childishly negligent computing habits. And now, it is all too clear, the mighty Alpha Geeks at the National Security Agency have been deluding themselves with a fantasy of control over US crypto exports. The recently publicised NSAkey in Windows propels all of Microsoft's -- and, by extension, most of America's -- crypto export controls into the realm of ironic comedy. This is because the second key can easily be replaced with one that will enable a third-party cryptographic service provider (CSP), whether approved by Microsoft or not, to load cryptographic applications under Windows. This fairly begs the issue of loosening America's tight crypto export controls, to which the DoJ and Clinton administration have clung hysterically for three years, as Congress wishes to do with the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act (SAFE), which will reach the House floor for a vote in the next few weeks. There is no longer any practical need for Congress to change the laws; overseas Windows users can now tweak their systems at will. Loosening the regulations will be mere window dressing. The revelation is rich with irony. If there were only one key, the Windows OS would balk whenever a CSP lacking an authorized Microsoft key attempted to function. But the fact that there are two keys makes for some illicit fun with overseas Windows distributions. This becomes all the more ironic, and all the more comical, if the second, or "NSA", key is in fact held by the National Security Agency, as some suspect. In that case, the NSA's own contribution to Windows, designed to inhibit cryptographic activity on exported systems, is the very flaw which will enable any overseas user to run a strong, "taboo" CSP under their Windows OS. Right now, all the bogeymen of NSA's darkest nightmares -- terrorists, hostile military organizations and kidnappers -- are undoubtedly re-working their Windows OS with substitute keys and 1024-bit CSPs, and doing so with evil relish, we are sure. Whether or not the NSA actually holds the second key, the fact remains that the organization reviews all American crypto schemes prior to release abroad, seeking to prevent exactly what the Microsoft dual-key scheme invites. We can't help recalling American comedian George Carlin's observation that the phrase "military intelligence", like the phrase "jumbo shrimp", is an oxymoron. ®

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