The Secure Public Networks Act (S. 909), just passed by the Senate Commerce Committee, would be disastrous in its effects on the privacy and security of U.S. computer users. Essentially, S. 909 could open any Internet communication to instantaneous government scrutiny. Meanwhile, the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade has passed the Security and Freedom Through Encryption Bill (SAFE), H.R. 695, a more enlightened approach that would lift at least some of the Clinton Administration’s restrictions. But the Clinton administration’s “Framework for Global Electronic Commerce,” recently released with great fanfare, promises no reforms, sadly contradicting the report’s assertion that governments should leave the private sector alone to develop the mechanisms of electronic commerce.
The new Prometheans are cryptographers and designers of strong encryption technology — that is, technology that encodes computer files so that only someone with a unique “key” can read them. Encryption will encourage Internet commerce while protecting consumer privacy. It will keep snoops from reading your e‐mail or stealing your credit card numbers as they are sent over the Internet. It will protect computer systems from industrial spies and malicious hackers. In short, it is vital to the future of cyber‐commerce.
But Washington politicians want to keep encryption in chains, stifling its vast potential to empower Internet users. The government now restricts the export of encryption stronger than 56 bits. (The more bits in an encryption system’s key, the more secure the system.) Just last month, however, Internet users succeeded in cracking a 56‐bit key, that of the government‐approved Data Encryption Standard system. Much stronger encryption will have to be made available for electronic commerce to flourish.