Following break-in, security of exportable Navigator questioned

The security of the exportable Netscape Navigator has drawn new scrutiny with the announcement that an MIT undergraduate used a single graphics computer to crack the Navigator's 40-bit encryption code.

Student Andrew Twyman used a $83,000 graphics computer for fewer than eight days to break the encryption code used on Netscape Communications Corp.'s exportable Netscape Navigator. Last fall, French researcher Damien Doligez used 112 workstations to crack the code in eight days.

Integrated Computing Engines Inc. (ICE) supplied the computer that Twyman used to crack the exportable Netscape Navigator. ICE announced the break-in last month. Twyman is a part-time ICE employee.

`The Big Deal'

"The big deal here is that our system's price performance is about 10 to 20 times less expensive than competing workstations or supercomputers, whereas you'd have to link together a large number of workstations or get a multimillion-dollar supercomputer to otherwise crack this type of code," said Jonas Lee, general manager of ICE. "Suddenly it becomes feasible [for] under $100,000."

Although the time required to break the code was only slightly shorter than last fall's effort, the cost required was much lower, according to ICE. ICE estimated the cost of cracking the code, in computer time, to be less than $600.

"This whole thing just underscores how outdated the government's laws are on export encryption," Lee said.

The version of Netscape Navigator that Twyman used was one that is approved for export out of the United States. Federal policy prohibits export of U.S. encryption products that exceed a key bit length of 40 bits. Federal policy makers say the limitation enables U.S. military and law enforcement to crack overseas messages that terrorists or criminals might send using U.S. encryption products. U.S. software producers say the restrictions keep them out of the growing international encryption software market.

Netscape spokesman Peter Thorp said federal agencies use a nonexportable version of Netscape Navigator, which is much stronger and has not been cracked.

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