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Good forger, bad forger / Vin Suprynowicz Column, Sept. 12Column, Sept. 12

    THE LIBERTARIAN, By Vin Suprynowicz
    Good cop, bad cop

    As Internet encryption advocate Robert Costner of Electronic Frontiers
Georgia (http://www.efga.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? ..."

  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

  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

  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?


  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

  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

  No thanks.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas
Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected] 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.


Vin Suprynowicz,   [email protected]

"A well-regulated population being necessary to the security of a police
state, the right of the Government to keep and destroy arms shall
not be infringed."