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But the restrictions have frozen a fast-moving technology in place, making it vulnerable to hacker attacks, with the feds unwilling to loosen their grip on encryption without a struggle.
Consider "key recovery," the Clinton administration's latest plan to monitor the communications of anyone who uses online services or wireless phones.
Anyone using key-recovery software would have to deposit the "keys" that scramble and un scramble their messages with a "trusted third party" (something resembling an escrow agency) that the government could approach if it wanted to intercept private transmissions.
Buying key-recovery software would amount to giving government agents the key to your house and trusting that they will never drop by unannounced.
It's an invitation for law enforcement agencies (including tax collectors) to monitor anyone who uses encryption programs.
And if you think constitutional guarantees would protect your privacy as long as you keep your nose clean, you haven't been reading the key-recovery proposals Congress is considering.
One bill would allow the cops to acquire your keys if they obtained a subpoenaeasy to getrather than the search warrant typically required to tap a telephone.
Another would have made the mere possession of encryption software without key-recovery features a criminal offense.
The National Sheriffs' Association, whose president is part of the new panel, wants the cops given immediate access to encrypted messages without even obtaining a search warrant or even a subpoena.
FBI Director Louis Freeh has repeatedly told Congress the administration would demand key- recovery provisions as part of any new encryption law.
Law enforcement officials claim that allowing strong encryption will prevent them from stopping terrorists, drug dealers and pedophiles. But criminals won't hand their encryption keys over to a government-friendly third party.
Secure encryption can help make sure the Fourth Amendment remains as important in the online world as it was in the days of quill pens and inkwells.