US encryption relaxation a bit slow

Too little, too late?

It was expected that the new relaxed rules on data encryption export from the USA would come into effect on Wednesday, but this will not now happen until 14 January, according to an announcement from the Bureau of Export Administration of the US Department of Commerce. The compelling market need is of course to protect e-commerce payments. The problem seems to be that the draft that was circulated by the BEA did not live up to the September announcement of the relaxation, and was also unworkable. Seven countries that the US regards as sponsors of state terrorism will not be allowed to have access to powerful encryption, nor will countries where the US government considers there to be significant money laundering. The pressure for relaxation, which is only from 40-bit to 56-bit keys (baby stuff nowadays), had come from vendors who pointed out that whereas the US used to have essentially the whole market for encryption products, there were in excess of 500 non-US products with 128-bit or greater encryption. The Norwegian-developed Opera browser offers 128-bit encryption, for example. When 56-bit products were specifically allowed to be exported in the past - to financial institutions for example - they had to have a back door for the Feds. The US IT industry is generally of the opinion that the 64,000-fold increase in security by going to 56-bit encryption from 40-bit is not enough. In June last year the Electronic Frontier Foundation confounded the FBI claim that it would take months or years to crack 56-bit keys: the EFF demonstrated this being done in a few hours. In August, the security system used in Internet transactions was cracked by an international effort coordinated by the Dutch National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science (Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica, CWI) in Amsterdam. The RSA-155 code (so-called because the 512-bit numbers in the code have about 155 decimals) was originally developed at MIT. Cracking it required finding the prime factors of a 512-bit number. The factored key is a model of the public key, which is used in the SSL protocol. This means that 512-bit keys are no longer safe against what the team modestly called a "moderately powerful attacker". More bits would help, but the hunt must now be on for something a few orders of magnitude more difficult to crack. ®

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