Top executives from some of the world's largest computer hardware and software companies will meet with FBI Director Louis Freeh and Senator Dianne Feinstein on June 9 to discuss their differences over government limitations over encryption technology.
Though a final list of attendees remains in flux, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Netscape CEO James Barksdale, America Online Chairman Steve Case, AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong, Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy and MCI President Timothy Price are all expected to attend.
Officials were careful not to term the meeting a negotiation but the event marks a watershed in the encryption debate: never before have top executives from major suppliers of encryption technology met directly with the FBI, their main nemesis in a fight that has dragged on for more than five years in the nation's capital.
Information technology executives are expected to tell Freeh that their future viability demands strong data-scrambling equipment to keep bank transactions, medical records, children's e-mail and a whole host of other sensitive data secure on the Internet.
Freeh, in turn, will argue law enforcement's view of encryption: that encryption's ability to encode data and phone calls threatens wiretapping capabilities that law enforcement desperately wants to preserve. He is expected to repeat his demand that all encryption technologies include technical back doors so that police can read the encoded messages with spare "keys" available through court order or other lawful access.
Industry and civil libertarians have rejected that approach, warning that such an arrangement threatens not only abuse by rogue cops but the creation of key repositories which would prove irresistible targets to commercially and politically motivated spies and saboteurs. Given the United States' dependence on computer networks for finance, medicine, utilities and other services, many security experts have condemned the plan as irresponsible on its face.
"Feinstein's agenda is if the CEOs hear only what Louis Freeh has to say, then somehow they'll agree with him," said Peter Harter, policy counsel to Netscape. "I appreciate what she's doing, but I know there's still reluctance on the part of some of the CEOs." Netscape's Barksdale had agreed to attend nonetheless, Harter said.
FBI Special Agent Charles Barry Smith said Freeh was eager to meet with the CEOs, but seemed to distance his boss from the encounter. "This is a meeting Senator Feinstein arranged," Smith said. "We're just participants in this."
Industry executives said the meeting is evidently in response to a letter delivered to Feinstein's office last March in which Silicon Valley executives told her they opposed current administration policy on encryption exports as well as FBI attempts to control domestic use of the technology.
Prior to the letter, Feinstein had said she had heard nothing from her own state's Silicon Valley on the issue - a contention that drew anger in high-tech circles when it was made.
Feinstein last year came out in support of the FBI's demand for controls on encryption worldwide. Current law controls export, but not domestic use, of encryption. Companies and activists alike have increased the pressure on Feinstein and her supporters since.
The recently formed Americans for Computer Privacy, for instance, elicited the support of Senate Judiciary members Senator John Ashcroft, and Senator Patrick Leahy, in drafting recent legislation that would guarantee Americans' right to use strong encryption at will while lifting nearly all restrictions on export of the technology abroad.
At the same time the bill also penalises use of encryption in commission of a crime and set up a research centre for law enforcement to study ways to attempt to break encrypted messages.
Civil libertarians have fought the last two provisions saying they can only cast legitimate use of encryption technology in an unfavourable light while inviting spy agencies skilled in encryption such as the National Security Agency into domestic affairs. Notably absent from the list of invitees: public interest groups who could argue for civil liberties without being subject to pressures companies may feel from an unfriendly bureaucracy.
Activists said they saw little hope for liberalisation as a result of the meeting.
"The only thing that can come out of this is the industry will cave into FBI pressure and will act contrary to the interests of the American public but in their own interest," Electronic Frontier Foundation Executive Director Barry Steinhardt said. "It's hard to imagine the FBI is going to back off because Bill Gates or Jim Barksdale is in the room."
Some industry lobbyists expressed misgivings as well. "They're going to get the scare speech," said one association executive who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "When the next bomb goes off, they're going to be blamed."
Senator Feinstein's office failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview.