Encryption Legislation at a Glance
LEGI-SLATE News Service
Updated April 24, 1998
At the heart of the debate over encryption sits a House bill, H.R. 695, titled the "Security and Freedom Through Encryption (SAFE) Act."
Sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the bill would relax U.S. export controls on certain strong encryption products. Manufacturers generally would be allowed to export their encryption products if similar goods are available in the target market a significant change, given that right now only relatively weak cryptography can be exported freely.
Goodlatte's bill also includes a provision that would guarantee U.S. citizens the right to use encryption of any strength.
But his measure, which had seemed destined to sail though the House after amassing about 250 co-sponsors, hit snags last year when FBI Director Louis Freeh convinced several key members of Congress to oppose it.
The FBI opposes the bill because of worries that foreign and domestic criminals will hide their crimes with strong U.S. encryption products. Freeh instead urged that all encryption products have built-in "back doors" so that law enforcement officers with court orders can decode them.
House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) whose panel controls what amendments may be offered from the House floor is among those who have objected to the bill on those grounds.
Also siding with Freeh, two House committees fired volleys at the legislation last year in the form of hostile amendments passed during committee bill-drafting sessions. These amendments, if made permanent additions to the legislation, would reverse Goodlatte's intent.
The National Security Committee floated an amendment to allow the administration to keep strict export controls on encryption products. And the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence agreed that all foreign and domestic encryption products should eventually have a so-called "key recovery" feature that would give law enforcement officials the back-door decoding option they want.
Three other committees Judiciary, International Relations and Commerce charged ahead and passed the bill with the critical export and use provisions intact.
Meanwhile, in the Senate...
While the House has battled over the SAFE bill, the Senate has been mulling over legislation called the "Secure Public Networks Act" [S. 909] that is closer to the FBI's position.
Sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Robert Kerrey (D-Neb.), the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it is the only encryption bill to see substantial action in the Senate so far. McCain's panel passed the bill last June.
The legislation would create a voluntary key-recovery system and would make it easier for manufacturers to export 56-bit encryption products a relatively strong standard, commonly used around the globe. But those who wish to export stronger products would have to get approval from an advisory board made up of industry and government officials.
Still, a significant contingent of influential senators on the Commerce panel oppose the McCain-Kerrey bill including Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).
Burns has introduced his own measure [S. 377], titled the "Promotion of Commerce On-Line in the Digital Era (Pro-CODE) Act." The Pro-CODE bill would ease export restrictions on U.S.-made strong encryption products and would bar state or federal governments from requiring Americans to provide back-door keys to their encrypted communications.
Two more senators are working on yet another proposal. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), both members of the Senate Judiciary panel, are collaborating on a measure that is likely to favor manufacturers of strong encryption.
Amy Branson can be reached at AKBranson@legislate.com.