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35


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 35, January 15, 1998

Good Cop, Bad Cop

By Vin Suprynowicz
vin@lvrj.com

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         As encryption advocate Gene Woltz (woltz@goodnet.com) recently asked his e-mail correspondents, "Would you store a key to your house at the local police station, just in case any government agency ... wanted to search your home, without a court ordered search warrant, whether you were home or not?
         "Would you feel better if the key to your house was kept at a local bank, but available to the government within two hours, seven days a week, 24 hours per day, and the bank was forbidden by law from telling you that the government had your house key?
         "What would you do if such a bill was in congress right now? ..."
         It is.
         The personal "effects" targeted this time are our computer files, telephone calls, and e-mail communications, thanks to the latest revisions to Senate Bill 909, "The Secure Public Networks Act of 1997."
         Initially the bill in question -- sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- stipulated the congressional intent was to outlaw the use of sophisticated devices to scramble Internet communications only for the purpose of concealing crimes, that Congress in no way intended to outlaw the transmission of coded messages between otherwise law-abiding Americans.
         But a new version of the bill's Section 105, appearing Aug. 28 and supported by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, would in effect require Internet Service Providers to decode users' messages upon court demand -- a function they would be able to perform because, under the new version of the law, those using encryption to make their messages unintelligible to third parties would now be required to store "escrow keys" capable of decoding their messages with a "trusted third party" such as the local bank.
         The sale, distribution, or importation of encryption programs without such a government-accessible "keyhole" would, of course, be made illegal, as of January 1999.
         Chief federal internal security officer Freeh contends his revision only reflects "the legitimate needs of law enforcement," of course.
         Mr. Costner responds: "Indeed, one can offer many arguments as to why a government would be better off without encryption being held by its citizens. Just think what a different world we would live in if early American crypto had not been possible. Remember Paul Revere's secret key implementation of 'One if by land, two if by sea?' "
         But in a pleasant surprise, Vice President Al Gore on Sept. 9 reaffirmed the Clinton administration's policy against restricting the domestic sale of high-tech computer privacy devices.
         "The administration's position has not changed on encryption," Gore told the Software Publishers Association.
         Until Mr. Freeh's initiative a week ago, official U.S. policy had opposed restrictions on the sale of data-scrambling software within the United States, though the administration does regulate exports of encryption devices, actually labeling such export products "munitions" based on their presumed usefulness to foreign armies and terrorist groups.
         Vice President Gore didn't specifically mention Freeh's proposal on Sept. 9. But White House aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press the vice president's brief comment was intended to respond to Director Freeh and "show that for now the administration is not changing its position on the sale of encryption devices in the United States."
         Last December a new administration plan took effect, giving U.S. companies more freedom to export high-tech encryption devices, but insisting manufacturers first guarantee that G-men -- upon court order -- would be able to crack the codes and intercept the communications.
         Will U.S. firms find it a crippling restriction when they try to enter international markets with "privacy" programs to which everyone knows the FBI and CIA already hold the secret keys?
         Probably.
         But the larger risk here is the spread of such an attractive tool for government snooping back into the domestic arena.
         If it were up to Judge Freeh, private letters dropped in the mailbox on the corner would have to be sealed in transparent envelopes, "to make it easier for us to check."
         Assurances that the administration is not going along with Director Freeh "for now" are welcome, though I can't help but wonder why Director Freeh was permitted to float such a balloon in the first place, except to see whether it might fly unopposed.
         This is a dangerous dalliance with the mindset of the police state. The federal government shouldn't be opening our mail -- electronic or otherwise.
         If that means a few "dangerous conspirators" are allowed to move their earnings around without telling the IRS, so be it. Because the only alternative is the "safety" of a nation with a cop listening on every phone.
         No thanks.


Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at vin@lvrj.com. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.


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