US crypto bill clears first hurdle

The leading bill to lift export restrictions on e-mail and telephone privacy technologies cleared the first of several major hurdles Wednesday as it passed the US House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee on a voice vote.

As expected, the pro-encryption Security and Freedom through Encryption Act encountered only token resistance from a handful of congressmen, including Bill McCollum, who urged lawmakers to guarantee law enforcement access to the un-encoded contents of messages scrambled with strong encryption.

But even McCollum's lonely amendment drew fire from one co-sponsor who compared it to a now-infamous administration proposal to set up a "voluntary" system allowing law enforcers to hold keys to unscramble encrypted computer files, e-mail messages and phone conversations with a simple subpoena.

"I thought the Clipper Chip was dead," said Zoe Lofgren, co-sponsor of the bill along with Bob Goodlatte. After more than six years of often rancorous debate, Congress still struggles with the encryption issue largely because of the stakes that appear in play. On one hand, businesses, civil libertarians and ordinary citizens want technology that will keep them safe from hackers, thieves and even cyber terrorists. Encryption, which uses computers to scramble electronic records and messages so thoroughly that even super-secret spy agencies cannot crack them, offers a way to do that.

However, crooks can just as easily use those same technologies to mask their communications at will. As a result, intelligence and law enforcement groups such as the National Security Agency and FBI want industry to sell encryption products that include some kind of "back door" for their work when authorised with a court order.

Industry and civil liberties groups say such plans are futile, because strong encryption is available around the world without so much as a nod to police access.

Despite the easy passage by the committee and a whopping 240 sponsors in the House, the bill won't necessarily have an easy path to a vote by the entire body.

With the bill cleared by the committee, the measure moves next to the International Relations Committee, and passage is expected. Possible referrals to the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, however, are expected to yield conflicting, pro-law enforcement versions which will have to be reconciled with the others in the full House.

Industry lobbyists said they were pleased with the vote. "Strong encryption is available everywhere via the Internet," Business Software Alliance President Robert Holleyman said: "Foreign availability of strong encryption begs the question as to why the United States continues to insist on unilateral export controls. The only country that is being hurt by this short-sighted policy is the United States."