White House loosens more controls on encryption exports

Wednesday, July 19, 2000

A White House announcement this week that the Clinton administration
would loosen more controls on the export of strong encryption has left civil
libertarians unimpressed.

“All it will do is help a couple of large companies sell their
software abroad,” said David Banisar, a senior fellow at the
Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“It’s not a great announcement one way or another.”

But Banisar warns that White House efforts to push new legislation in
Congress to strengthen privacy and network security could adversely affect
anonymity on the Internet. Specifically, provisions allowing law enforcement
officers to “trap and trace” information about Internet users would
blow the cover off whistleblowers and anonymous political speakers, he

John Podesta, White House chief of staff, said July 17 that under a
new policy American companies will be allowed to export their strongest
encryption products to users in any nation in the European Union and to
Australia, Norway, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Japan, New Zealand and

Podesta said the government would eliminate its current 30-day waiting
period but still require new software to be submitted for a technical

During his speech, Podesta also called for legislation to address
inconsistencies in how law enforcement can legally tap into Internet
communications. He said current law doesn’t provide the same legal
protections for online communications as it does for telephone

Podesta gave a cursory mention to “Carnivore,” a hotly
debate surveillance software that gives government officials the ability to
monitor the Internet traffic of individuals. The FBI recently admitted to using
the software but said it had done so only after obtaining search warrants.

“It’s time to update and harmonize our existing laws to
give all forms of technology the same legislative protections as our telephone
conversations,” Podesta said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, says the changes fail to
address privacy issues sufficiently and continue to leave in place restrictions
that violate the First Amendment.

The ACLU adds that the few provisions that would strengthen privacy
likely won’t pass as Congress nears the end of its latest session.

“While the Clinton administration’s proposals have some
heartening qualities to them, they are too little and too late,” said
Barry Steinhardt, associate director for the ACLU.

Banisar agreed that the latest changes don’t amount to much
improvement. But he said he feared that the proposed legislation could have a
profound affect on anonymity on the Internet.

While it may allow law enforcement officers to identify criminals,
Banisar said it would also reveal the identities of those engaging in
legitimate anonymous speech.

In a related development, the ACLU announced that it had filed a
Freedom of Information Act request, asking the FBI to disclose the computer
source code for Carnivore and other technical details about its new Internet
wiretapping programs.

“Right now, the FBI is running this software out of a black
box,” Steinhardt said. “The FBI is saying, ‘Trust us,
we’re not violating anybody’s privacy.’ With all due respect,
we’d like to determine that for ourselves.”

“Even though it has tried to persuade the American public that
it cares about cyber-privacy, the Clinton administration declines to back its
rhetoric with action,” he said.

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