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FBI Director Advocates Encryption Regulation to Counter Drug Conspiracies


September-October 1997

FBI Director Louis Freeh is advocating more extensive regulation of domestic use of encryption. ("Protecting encryption," Orange County Register, September 8, 1997, metro section, p. 6).

Freeh says that unregulated encryption "would allow drug lords, spies, terrorists and even violent gangs to communicate about their crimes and their conspiracies with impunity." Freeh endorses "key recovery" or "key escrow" encryption, which requires that a person's decoding keys be given to a third party, such as a bank, so that the government can access the communications or computer records if there is a criminal investigation. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) backs the proposal for tougher controls, even though many major companies involved in developing the encryption codes are based in California.

Stanton McCandlish, program director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "What Freeh is asking for would basically strip everyone's privacy." He added, "Just about everyone knows how encryption is essential for digital commerce, and is being built into the next generation of phones and word processors." Software developers in many foreign countries have access to unrestricted encryption methods which defeats the purpose of Freeh's proposal and would put U.S. encryption developers at a disadvantage if the regulations are adopted. Two bills (H.R. 695 and S. 376) guaranteeing the right to encrypt, proposed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) respectively, are currently under consideration by Congress.

Encryption software enables persons using e-mail or other digital communication, including types of telephone and cellular communication, to keep their communications secure from all except those have been given the key to decode the message.

On September 24, a dozen groups, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Institute for Electronics and Electrical Engineering, the American Mathematical Society and the American Association of University Professors, sent a letter to the Clinton Adminstration criticizing its policy on encryption technology (John Markoff, "Scientists Press Campaign For Computer Data Security," New York Times, September 24, 1997, p. D2).

The letter was sent in response to an amendment to H.R. 695. The amendment, offered by U.S. Reps. Michael G. Oxley (R-OH) and Thomas J. Manton (D-NY), would prohibit the manufacture, sale, distribution, export or import of encryption systems that could hide communications from law-enforcement agencies. "I find it disturbing that we would throw up our hands and say we can't do anything," said Oxley. "That's not my style."

The scientific associations say the amendment would hinder the open exchange of information, and would benefit other countries without such encryption regulations. "The law would have a grave effect on cryptographic research in the United States, and it could have an impact on commerce in the U.S.," said Irving Lerch, co-chairman of the committee on scientific freedom and responsibility of AAAS.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) said he plans to offer a competing amendment to the Oxley-Manton measure that would create a Federal center to provide code breaking technology to law enforcement agencies.

On October 8, the European Commission rejected the "key recovery" encryption proposal by the FBI and the Clinton Administration, stating that such a system would weaken data-privacy laws, hinder the secure and free flow of personal information, does not entirely prevent criminal use of encryption, and invites additional ways for hackers to break into cryptograhic systems. Because of the borderless nature of the Internet, the Clinton Adminstration has acknowledged that its proposal is workable only if other countries adopt similar systems (Edmund L. Andrews, "Europeans Reject U.S. Plan On Electronic Cryptography," New York Times, October 9, 1997, p. D4).

Electronic Frontier Foundation - 1550 Bryant Street, Suite 725, San Francisco, CA 94117, Tel: (415) 436-9333, Fax: (415) 436-9993.

American Association for the Advancement of Science - 1200 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20005, Tel: (202) 326-6400.

FBI - 935 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20535-0001, Tel: (202) 324-3000.

U.S. Rep. Michael Oxley - 2233 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-2676, E-mail:

U.S. Rep. Thomas Manton - 2235 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-3965, Fax: (202) 225-1909, E-mail:

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey - 2133 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-2836, Fax: (202) 226-0340.