Following a White House decision to relax export controls on data encryption software, an alliance of 11 industry heavyweights has formed to act on the administration's new guidelines.
Until now, the US government has allowed only weak encryption software to be exported, fearing the technology may pose a threat if used by criminals. But this week the White House is promising to ease controls in order to facilitate global electronic commerce, on the condition that software developers begin work on so-called "key recovery systems" to go along with their software.
Key recovery systems would enable the government or a third party, through a court order if necessary, to access the data.
The coalition includes IBM, Apple, Digital, Groupe Bull and UPS. Its stated goal is to test and develop key recovery systems that will make secure, electronic global commerce possible. One alliance member says the key recovery system will not compromise the security of encrypted documents, since there is no single key that is kept in escrow by a third party.
"Multiple key recovery agents could each have a piece of the key," says Robert Rarog, public affairs manager for Digital. "That's one of the options we'll be looking at." Rarog says the alliance is not only responding to the White House policy revision, but has been talking about improving key recovery technologies for some time.
"It's not primarily for the government's use," he says, "but for use within private entities."
At least one company is opposed to the revised White House policy, saying it feels pressured to fall in behind the IBM-led alliance in order to be granted export approval. "Netscape is not averse to joining the coalition at a later date, but we can't compromise on our own technology," says Jeff Treuhaft, director of security at Netscape Communications.
"Netscape is cautiously optimistic about what IBM is doing, but IBM is a bridge between a software and a hardware company and doesn't understand the competetive pressures of a software-only company," he says. "The government is playing US companies against each other, while across the world a Japanese or German company could become the next Netscape."
The White House policy requires only that companies show they are committed to building and marketing future products that support key recovery, and that they meet certain benchmarks every six months. General export licences will be issued after a one-time review confirms companies are complying, according to a White House statement.
Rorag says additional companies are expected to join the alliance, which will make its first recommendations early in 1997, he says.