Congress targets exported encryption tech

The House Armed Services Committee Wednesday voted in favor of giving the president the power to ban the export of certain types of powerful encryption technology that some experts say poses a threat to U.S. national security.

The 47-6 vote to amend the Security and Freedom through Encryption (SAFE) Act, a bill that would remove all controls on the export of computer encryption products, comes just weeks after senior Defense Department and intelligence officials warned lawmakers that eradicating controls on the technology would give terrorists and other criminal organizations around the world the means to cloak their plans for carrying out violence in a web of electronic secrecy [FCW, July 12, 1999].

The amendment, introduced by representatives Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), Norman Sisisky (D-Va.) and Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), allows the export of encryption products developed by U.S. firms but also calls for strict licensing approval before companies can export the most powerful products currently on the market. In addition, the amendment makes no mention of controls on the domestic use of encryption products and does not include any language covering encryption-key recovery or key escrow.

"Calling [House Resolution] 850 the 'SAFE' Act is like calling Slobodan Milosevic a saint—it's a serious misnomer," said Weldon, who also serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Research and Development Subcommittee. "The SAFE Act, without this amendment, would do more harm than good," Weldon said. "In fact, it would seriously jeopardize America's national security by allowing the uncontrolled, worldwide proliferation of our nation's most advanced encryption technology," he said.

Speaking before the committee markup session began, committee chairman Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.) said the amendment "will make sure that the federal government is not arbitrarily handicapped in its ability to protect public safety and national security." In addition, "it also recognizes the need for flexibility in this fast-changing technological sector by giving the president the tools necessary to strike a balanced national policy," he said.

"This amendment ensures that the concerns raised by federal agencies that are responsible for protecting our national security are met," Weldon said. While Weldon's amendment allows the export of encryption technology, "it simply requires licensing approval for encryption above certain levels to ensure that we do not endanger our own national security," he said.

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