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US export restrictions and local legislation on cryptography still casts a shadow over the security of ecommerce site even years after regulations to permit the use of strong encryption.

That's according to a survey of SSL servers by Netcraft, carried out last month, which discovered 18 per cent of supposedly secure servers use potentially vulnerable key lengths.

In most European countries more than 25 per cent are still using short keys, and in France, which had laws restricting the use of cryptography until relatively recently, over 40 per cent of sites are using short keys. This compares to under 16 per cent of secure servers in North America which use weak encryption.

Since January 2000, the US has allowed companies to export any encryption product to commercial firms, individuals and other non-government end-users without a license. These regulations include exports to all countries bar exports to Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria, which the US classifies as "terrorist supporting states".

Netcraft reckons export grade cryptography remains quite common outside North America partly because the relative weakness of the server's choice of cryptography is not obvious to sys admins, so there is so little pressure to make the change.

If browser developers include an indication of key length - rather than the present lock symbol displayed on all SSL sessions - this may prompt the necessary upgrades, Netcraft suggests. Admins could act before then, of course, but given how slowly people applied patches to upgrade well known flaws to Microsoft's IIS Web server software perhaps an additional incentive is needed. ®

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