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White House cypher proposal could upstage Congress

Clinton finally decrypts the writing on the wall

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A palpably apprehensive, sweat-soaked bundle of Clinton-administration luminaries held a press conference last night to tout the White House's latest end-run around Congress in the realm of crypto exports. US Attorney General Janet Reno looked as if a gun were pressed against her back as she recited, with painful reluctance, the advantages of the President's new legislative proposal, the Cyberspace Electronic Security Act, or CESA. The Act authorises exports of strong crypto subject to technical review and exceptions for "hostile" governments. "The widespread use of encryption poses significant challenges to law enforcement and to public safety," Reno intoned. She mechanically repeated the DoJ mantra, that crypto inhibits the Knights of Righteousness in "stopping a terrorist attack or recovering a kidnapped child [where] encountering encryption may mean the difference between success and catastrophic failure." She regretted that the revised proposal now makes the touchy business of key escrow voluntary. She frowned; she fussed nervously with her ill-fitted spectacles; she grimaced and pouted. But she insisted it was a brilliant proposal. We think her lips were moving, at any rate. The message was clear: more and better crypto will necessarily mean more and better crime. To even the field upon which America's evildoers and heroes will do battle, the CESA authorises substantial allocations of money to the FBI's Technical Support Centre, which will dedicate itself to finding methods of obtaining evidence in spite of encryption. The FBI's score is nothing to sneeze at: a hefty US $80 million, to be spread through FY 2003. Law enforcement was not alone in its discomfiture. Deputy Defence Secretary John Hamre warned that the Department of Defence would "have to develop new tools" to compensate for strong crypto exports. The DoD is "the largest single entity that operates in cyberspace," he boasted, as if to confirm the worst fears of conspiracy theorists across the USA. Hamre regretted the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act (SAFE) proposed by Congress. "The only people who would be 'safe' if that passed would be spies, who would be free to export anything of national security interest without any surveillance at all," he quipped. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R--Texas) convened his own press conference shortly after, cautiously welcoming the Clinton proposal but at the same time making it clear that the SAFE Act would not be removed from the House schedule. "We welcome the White House effort here; we will look at it with a great deal of interest...but we know how well [the SAFE Act] is tuned, so we will proceed on that basis," Armey said. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R--Virginia), a co-author of the SAFE Act, attributed the White House reversal to mounting congressional pressure. "This has been a long battle, and we are going to see it through to its correct conclusion. But the changes being announced at the White House are very close to [our] legislation," he observed. But of course the Devil is in the details. "It remains to be seen how the administration will follow through, Goodlatte said. "Their announcement is very long on potential but short on detail, so we'll be watching very carefully to make sure that the regulations issued later this year will match the policy announced today." Goodlatte flatly contradicted the administration's core assumption that more crypto necessarily means more crime. He noted that strong crypto can actually reduce crime by effectively concealing such tempting targets as credit card and other financial information from prying eyes. A fair argument, but one quite useless on the Clinton administration and Reno DoJ, which can see only terrorists and kidnappers on the threat horizon. Perhaps those spectacles really do need adjusting. ®

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