Good Cop, Bad Cop
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
As encryption advocate Gene Woltz (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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? ..."
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
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
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
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?
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
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las
Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at
email@example.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.