New encryption plan to be tested in federal pilots

Vice President Al Gore last Friday announced a plan to encourage the widespread use of encryption that can be decoded by law enforcement with a court warrant. The move clarifies the emerging outlines of a new administration encryption policy.

The vice president also announced that federal agencies would act as early test beds for trying out encryption products that fit with the administration policy. That policy hinges on the concept of "key recovery," in which a third party with legal authority, such as a warrant, could recover decryption keys to decode encrypted data.

Under the newly articulated policy, all exported encryption products that use encryption keys longer than 40 bits would be required to provide a key recovery system.

The new policy emerged after discussions with industry, which has opposed restrictions on encryption export. "A lot of contentious issues have been removed," Gore said. "Our dialogue with industry and national law enforcement has generated a great deal of progress."

Administration officials said the policy opens the door for agencies to use encryption and to try out the concept of key recovery.

"One of the biggest roadblocks to electronic commerce in the government has been this cryptography mess," said Bruce McConnell, director of OMB's Information Technology Policy Branch. "If we can solve that, we can move out on electronic commerce. The good news today is we're getting to the serious point in negotiations with industry to solve the problem."

In August, the administration will announce about 10 pilot projects at federal agencies to test the concept of key recovery.

"This is going to be an exciting time" for federal agencies, one senior administration official said, "because they are going to be involved in pilots. They'll be experimenting" with encryption products.

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