Encryption standard strengthened

The federal government has a new standard for encrypting electronic documents and messages, a code so secure that federal officials predict its encoded material will remain uncrackable for 20 to 30 years.

The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) received formal approval from Commerce Secretary Donald Evans Dec. 4. It replaces the Data Encryption Standard (DES), which was adopted in 1977 and can be deciphered with modern computers.

Now that the federal government has adopted the standard, it is expected to provide a boost to e-government.

In the short term, the use of the new encryption standard is likely to go unnoticed by most people, said Phil Bullman, a spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which helped select the new standard.

Although encryption is already used extensively by the financial industry for such things as online banking and automated teller machine transactions, the encryption is invisible to banking customers, and most users are probably unaware that it is occurring, he said.

In the longer term, however, more sophisticated encryption is expected to make more e-government functions possible, said Alan Balutis, former chief of NIST's Advanced Technology Program.

Strong encryption is essential to ensure the security and authenticity of the online transactions envisioned in e-government, such as digitally signing contracts and completing financial, legal and other transactions, he said. At the heart of encryption technology is a complex mathematical formula known as an algorithm. AES uses a 128-bit encryption algorithm compared with DES' 56-bit one.

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