This summary is compiled from Washington Post and washingtonpost.com staff reports. Last updated Sept. 18, 1997.|
Encryption: The Story So Far
Clinton's Executive Order Current Legislation
Encryption used to be the stuff of military intrigues and Cold War spy stories. But now, it's becoming essential to the growing electronic marketplace and to those doing business between far-flung offices.
But when PGP turned up in other countries, the Department of Justice launched a three-year investigation of Zimmermann. The problem was that PGP used powerful 128-bit encoding keys, and until recently U.S. export laws allowed only weaker 40-bit encryption to cross the borders. Anything stronger was classified a "munition," just like guns and warheads.
No criminal charges were filed against Zimmermann. He even won a Pioneer award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for his work. But the case dramatically highlighted the sharply differing views toward encryption technology.
The Clipper Chip
By adding a Clipper chip to, say, a telephone, users could scramble their phone conversations. But precisely how Clipper encrypts messages was classified. And to ensure that law enforcement officers could easily tap Clipper-scrambled exchanges, the government would keep copies of Clipper decoding keys.
This roused the ire of software companies and privacy advocates, and the administration backed away from the plan.
The order also gave the departments of Commerce and Justice control over encryption technologies. New rules allow manufacturers to incorporate stronger encryption into their products as long as they commit to systems that allow the government to recover keys.
A federal court struck down the order in August, ruling that restricting export of encryption technology amounts to restricting free speech. But another federal court upheld the rule, and the Justice Department has appealed it.
A Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Robert Kerrey (D-Neb.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would offer a trade-off to developers — they could export stronger encryption if they made keys available to the government. The Business Software Alliance called it "a step in the wrong direction."
Meanwhile, companies such as Netscape, working to develop safe electronic commerce, have started integrating similar cryptography into their products.
© 1997 Digital Ink Company