The whole issue of encryption policy and software export licenses is fraught with controversy. The software industry, convinced that the current policy puts it at a competitive disadvantage, has been lobbying Congress hard to remove the restrictions. The intelligence-gathering agencies argue just as strongly that the ability to use digital wiretapping techniques is a vital part of the fight against crime, drug cartels and terrorism. And privacy proponents suggest the whole proposed system would dramatically increase the possibility of abuse and violations of individual rights.

Although it is extremely unlikely that all sides would be happy with any decision, quick resolution is required. Market and policy issues will not wait indefinitely.

Although still bloodied by its earlier Clipper chip proposal, the Clinton administration recently offered another approach: public key management. The scheme would put the key to unlock encrypted messages in the hands of a third party. With proper authority, federal agencies and other organizations could gain access to the key and the message contents.

Ten pilot projects at federal agencies will test the proposed system beginning in August. Some speed is required. If these pilots proceed with the usual deliberation of government pilot programs, no one will care by the time the results come in.

The marketplace is changing very rapidly. If Congress and the administration want to lead in encryption policy, they need to take the point quickly.


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