CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1996 // December 20

Jacking in from the "Two Flew Over the Crypto Nest" port:


Washington -- The encryption issue continues to bubble up all over the boneyard of D.C. On Thursday, in the wake of the U.S. District Court decision in San Francisco, that declared current U.S. restrictions on exporting *printed* crypto code violates First Amendment rights, crypto came to the fore, if only briefly.

The following instances, one during a congressional hearing, the other during a news conference by U.S. Attorney General Janet "Say Hallelujah, I've Saved My Job" Reno, point out the widening rift between congress and the Administration over the encryption issue.

During a hearing to discuss the FBI's handling of the bombing in Centinneal Park in Atlanta during the summer Olympics, Sen. Arlan Spector (R-Pa.) couldn't resist tossing a dart at FBI Dir. Louis Freeh when he said:

"And the very last thing is: I know the federal court decision which came down -- on export restrictions on certain encryption software -- yesterday is not one you may have had a chance to review. But, Director Freeh, with my concern on what I have thought has been a misguided policy by the administration on their export restriction encryption policy, it's probably safe to assume that you and I may have a chance to discuss this latest court case, and whether it goes up on appeal, or whether we try one more time on some -- on a legislative fix."

Freeh did not respond to Spector's question. But Spector's comments are important on two fronts. One, he comes out as vocal opponent of the Administration's policy, calling it "misguided" and signalling that it's likely he will ally himself with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) to resurrect pro-encryption legislation during the 105th Congress.

Spector is clearly dialed into the issue; good news for a Congress that has, with a few notable exceptions, essentially been brain dead on this issue and completely spun by the fictitious horror stories that the FBI's Freeh takes every opportunity tell on Capitol Hill.

Sadly, the nation's top cop, Janet Reno, appears to be hopelessly lost on the crypto issue. During her weekly news conference, she was asked about the court decision and "why does the government feel that it's so important to place those restrictions on that type of technology, and will you appeal this decision?"

Reno punted on the latter question, saying she hadn't seen the opinion. On the meat of the question, she simply muddled through. She emphasized wiretaps and how encrypting real time conversations can be a threat to law enforcement investigations.

The problem, according to Reno, is this: "What we're faced with now is that there is the developing capacity -- and it will become more so -- the power to encrypt or to code a system so that it cannot be intercepted through new high-tech systems."

To counter this threat, Reno said, "We have got to have the capacity to intercept that." This has always, from day one of this crypto debate, been the real jones of the FBI: Real time interception and decryption of voice communications. Stored data and Email make up the FBI's crypto hat trick, but it's the wiretapping and decryption of coded voice communications that really gives the FBI a hard on.

Reno short-hopped a common meme among civil libertarians, that being the notion that the FBI is simply looking to expand its current wiretap authority. Remember, Freeh has been dogged in saying that the Bureau is not looking to expand its authority, but simply maintain the status quo.

Reno answered this "expansion" theory, saying: "What's expanding is not our authority, really, but the technology that permits such tremendous communication systems in the world. And what we've got to be prepared to do is to have a system that will permit us to get a court order, just as we do now for simple telephones, to intercept the communication and, if it is encrypted or coded, to decode it."

Now... don't we all feel better? It's not "really" an expansion of authority. Nope, just an expansion of the technological law enforcement capacity. It's typical cheapjack bureaucratic Washington bullshit.

Reno is convinced that people will "appreciate" the FBI's capability to do this and then tells this story: "A businessman says, 'Well, I don't want you messing with my business,' but if his competitor comes in and steals trade secrets and stores that in a coded computer, he's not going to like it if the FBI doesn't have the capacity to get a lawful search warrant and search that computer because they can't decode it."

However, as Reno's own leutinent, Jamie Gorelick, admitted before a congressional panel earlier this year: If the FBI can't crack a code, it has, in the past, called on the "technical assistantance" of the National Security Agency, the nation's top spooks and the world's best equipped code crackers.

As for the ban on crypto exports? "We're going to continue to work with everyone," Reno said, "because I think as people work through this issue, they understand that it is in everybody's best interest to be able to do it."

Well, apparently Reno hasn't been in the loop on the industry's about face on this issue lately. Where only a few months ago the computer and software industry seemed to have turned into White House lap dogs by voicing initial approval of the new crypto initiatives put forth by the President via executive order, now that industry has revolted. Industry now claims that the Administration essentially kicked them in the balls, the term "bait and switch" has been used.

Surprise, surprise. Industry got what it deserved for being cozy with an Administration famous for having blinders on when it comes to this issue. Now industry feels hurt and dismayed. Excuse me if I can't gin up any sympathy for these guys... what the fuck were they thinking in the first place?

As Spector and Reno's comments show, this issue isn't likely to die a slow quiet death in the coming years. Indeed, it looks like battle lines are being drawn already; a kind of digital line in cyberspace.

Who will win? Don't bet on the FBI... even their own turncoat spies aren't clever enough to encrypt their self-incriminating files. So, Mr. Freeh, tell me again why you need the keys to my encrypted messages? Even your own troops let you walk right through the digital front door.

Meeks out...


Copyright © 1996 CyberWire Dispatch / Brock N. Meeks <brock@well.com>