New Crypto Rules: Revolutionary or Half-Baked?

Not everyone led with Microsoft's changing of the guard today. The Wired News' Friday favorite was further coverage of Wednesday's change in encryption laws. This two-day-old news was also big at ZDNet and ABCnews.com as of Friday morning.

For those who missed it: Congress changed the rules exporting 128-bit encryption. Companies had been limited to exporting strong crypto to certain industries, but now countries can get it, too (except Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba). One hitch: The U.S. government gets a one-time review of encryption products before their export, and can still limit what gets sent. Civil libertarians aren't happy about that limitation or other loopholes.

While some journalists trumpeted a victory for high-tech, a ZDNet headline declared "Crypto Compromise a Lawyer's Delight." According to sources like crypto expert Bruce Schneier and ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt, even the relaxed rules are still too complicated for anyone but a lawyer to understand.

Wired News sallied forth with a conspiracy theory. "If there's one lawsuit the U.S. government would dearly like to see vanish," wrote Declan McCullagh, "it's the case of Bernstein v. Department of Commerce." Bernstein wanted to post a program to the newsgroup sci.crypt in 1992, but doing so would have been a felony. His suit asks the courts to rule encryption export controls unconstitutional (oh, that silly First Amendment thing again). If Bernstein wins, it might be the end of crypto regulation as we know it. However, "[o]n Monday, the Justice Department could - conceivably - walk into federal court in San Francisco and ask that the case be dismissed because Bernstein is free from criminal prosecution," wrote McCullagh. "Or is he?" You're technically still breaking the law if you post encryption programs on a newsgroup with a participant from, say, Iraq.

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