Briefing Paper No. 42

The Myth of Superiority of American Encryption Products

By Henry B. Wolfe
November 12, 1998

Executive Summary

Encryption software and hardware use sophisticated mathematical algorithms to encipher a message so that only the intended recipient may read it. Fearing that criminals and terrorists will use encryption to evade authorities, the United States now restricts the export of encryption products with key lengths of more than 56 bits. The controls are futile, because strong encryption products are readily available overseas.

Foreign-made encryption products are as good as, or better than, U.S.-made products. U.S. cryptographers have no monopoly on the mathematical knowledge and methods used to create strong encryption. Powerful encryption symmetric-key technologies developed in other countries include IDEA and GOST. Researchers in New Zealand have developed very strong public-key encryption systems. As patents on strong algorithms of U.S. origin expire, researchers in other countries will gain additional opportunities to develop strong encryption technology based on those algorithms.

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Henry B. Wolfe has been an active computer professional for nearly 40 years. He has taught computer security at the graduate level at the University of Otago in New Zealand for the past 15 years.