Keys called target for terrorists

A panel of experts and members of Congress spoke out against legislation that would force those using encryption software to hand over decoding keys to third-party organizations.

Instead of providing additional protection, "mandatory key escrow" would be a "serious threat" to the nation's infrastructure, said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), at a panel discussion Oct. 2 on electronic surveillance and terrorism presented by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee. Mandatory key escrow calls for a duplicate key that can decipher encrypted information, to be held by a trusted third party -- such as a bank.

"This is a matter of utmost national security," he said. "Encryption is the strongest tool we have" for protecting key institutions, such as financial markets. Such keys would be another target for terrorists, and enabling law enforcement to access them would put institutions at risk, he said.

Proponents of key escrow say that without an additional, accessible key held by a third party, law enforcement agencies would be unable to decode data concealed through strong encryption. That would enable terrorists and other criminal organizations to communicate electronically without the possibility of detection, they say.

Goodlatte said that so far, investigators haven't found any evidence indicating that the Sept. 11 terrorists used strong encryption. Furthermore, even if they did use it, they wouldn't offer their keys to a third party, he said.

"Osama bin Laden is not going to escrow his keys," Goodlatte said.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) agreed, saying that law enforcement should try to stop the advancement of new tools. "Technology is going to grow," he said. "The genie is out of the bottle."

John Podesta, a professor at Georgetown University and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton, agreed that mandatory key escrow proposals would not work. Besides, he said, encryption is difficult to use and in the future, "security tools will be built into networks by the providers," such as banks and Internet service providers.

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