Computer industry chiefs to debate encryption policy with FBI

Friday, June 5, 1998

The computer industry's top executives plan to meet with FBI Director Louis Freeh next Tuesday to discuss whether law enforcement officials should hold the key to unlock codes that scramble electronic messages.

But officials from computer privacy and civil rights groups, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said they don't expect much from the meeting.

They said organizers' failure to invite anyone “from our neck of the woods” leaves them worried that First Amendment and privacy issues will be left out of the discussions.

Tuesday's meeting highlights an active week for encryption experts, many of whom will attend EPIC's Cryptography Conference Monday in Washington, D.C. Officials with the Center for Democracy and Technology said they plan to release a special report on encryption before the conference but would not discuss it beforehand.

Encryption programs permit computers to scramble data so they can't be read without a numerical access key. Current federal law prohibits the posting of practically unbreakable encryption on the Internet without a license, saying it violates export codes.

Currently, computer users in the United States can use this so-called “strong encryption” without a built-in key to allow police to unscramble the code. But export laws limit the strength of such codes when sent abroad.

For years, the computer industry and law enforcement have been at odds over how much control the government should place on encryption software.

Encryption experts contend such laws violate free speech, because they create a prior restraint against computer programmers and others who wish to exchange programs or encryption over the Internet. Government access to encryption codes, they argue, infringes on privacy rights as well.

But government officials, Freeh in particular, contend that the government needs to control encryption to prevent its illegal use. Some say widespread use of encryption hinders effective law enforcement.

On Tuesday, Freeh will meet with several of the computer industry's leaders, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Netscape Communications' Jim Barksdale and America Online's Steve Case.

“It's always nice to sit down and talk,” said FBI Special Agent Charles Barry Smith. “We're hoping the industry will work with law enforcement to bring to the American public socially responsible encryption.”

Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., arranged Tuesday's discussions but declined to discuss the meeting with the First Amendment Center.

Americans for Computer Privacy, which has discussed encryption with the White House for two months, has a brighter view of the meeting and expects it to be productive, said Ed Gillespie, the group's executive director.

An official with EPIC, however, said that other computer rights advocates are baffled that encryption experts weren't invited to the meeting.

“Nothing can seriously be resolved if there's nothing but high-level CEOs. They obviously have a lot of influence, but they don't speak for us,” said David Banisar, a lawyer with EPIC. “We're not expecting anything to come out of this.”

Banisar said he thinks Feinstein, a strong supporter of tight restrictions on encryption, wants to “get them in a room with Louis Freeh, and [she thinks] he'll charm them and make them” supporters of the government position.

“I would think these billion-dollar CEOs are a little smarter than that,” Banisar said.

But he said attitudes won't swing the other way either.

“Freeh made his career out of electronic surveillance,” Banisar said. “It's unlikely for him to see a change of heart on that.”