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Cerf letter to Congress

Dr. Cerf's Letter to Congress

Dr. Vinton G. Cerf
3614 Camelot Drive
Annandale, VA 22003-1302

11 April 1993
The Honorable Timothy Valentine
Committee on Science, Space and Technology
Subcommittee on Technology, Environment and Aviation
House of Representatives
Rayburn House Office Building

Dear Chairman Valentine:

I recently had the honor of testifying before the Subcommittee on Technology, Environment and Aviation during which time Representative Rohrabacher (R, California) made the request that I prepare correspondence to the committee concerning the present US policy on the export of hardware and software implementing the Data Encryption Standard (DES) and the RSA Public Key encryption algorithm (RSA).

As you know, the DES was developed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in the mid-1970s, based on technology developed by Internatonal Business Machines (IBM). The details of the algorithm were made widely available to the public and considerable opportunity for public comment on the technology was offered. In the same general time period, two researchers at Stanford University (Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie) published a paper describing the possible existence of mathematical functions which, unlike the symmetric DES algorithm, could act in a special, pairwise fashion to support encryption and decryption. These so-called "public key algorithms" had the unusual property that one function would encrypt and the other decrypt -- differing from the symmetric DES in which a single function performs both operations. The public key system uses a pair of keys, one held private and the other made public. DES uses one key which is kept secret by all parties using it.

Three researchers at MIT (Rivest, Shamir and Adelman) discovered an algorithm which met Hellman and Diffie's criteria. This algorithm is now called "RSA" in reference to its inventors. The RSA technology was patented by Stanford and MIT and a company, Public Key Partners (PKP), created to manage licensing of the RSA technology. A company called RSA Data Security, Inc., was also formed, which licensed the technology from PKP and markets products to the public based on the technology.

The current policy of the United States places DES and RSA technology under export control. Because cryptography falls into the category of munitions, it is controlled not only by the Commerce Department but also by the State Department under the terms of the International Traffic in Arms regulations. Despite the public development of both of these technologies and their documented availability outside the United States over the last 15 years, US policy has been uniformly restrictive concerning export licensing.

As the United States and the rest of the world enter more fully into the Information Age in which digital communications plays a critical role in the global infrastructure, the "digital signature" capability of public key cryptography is a critical necessity for validating business transactions and for identifying ownership of intellectual property expressed in digital electronic forms.

Registration and transfer of intellectual property rights in works which can be represented in digital form will be cenral factors in the national and global information infrastructure. A number of parties are exploring technical means for carrying out rights registration and transfer, making use of public key cryptography as a basic tool.

In addition, there is a great deal of current work on electronic mail systems which support privacy by means of encryption and support authenticity by means of digital signatures. One of these systems, developed in the Internet environment I mentioned in my testimony, is called Privacy-enhanced Mail (PEM) and makes use of DES, RSA and some other special "hash" functions which are integral to the production of digital signatures.

For these various systems to be compatible on an international basis, it would be very helpful for the cryptographic components to be exportable on a world-wide basis. A number of vendors make produces relying on these technologies within the United States but often find it very difficult to engage in international commerce owing to the export licensing required for these technologies. Ironically, the technology appears to be widely available outside the US and also outside the COCOM countries, so US firms face both competition outside the US and export inhibitions in their attempts to develop worldwide markets.

There are many valid national security reasons for limiting the export of cryptographic capabilities, since these technologies may aid an opponent in time of war or other conflict. Perhaps just as important, US intelligence gathering capability can be eroded by the availability of high grade cryptography on a worldwide basis. Recently, it has also been alleged that the world-wide availability of cryptography would also seriously impede US drug enforcement and anti-crime efforts. While these reasons seem sufficient, many have pointed out that the widespread accessibility to the detailed specifications of DES and RSA and availability and existence of software and hardware outside the US have long since done whatever damage is going to be done in respect of warfighting, crime or drug potential. This line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that our policies only inhibit legitimate commerce, but have little impact on the other concerns expressed.

As in all such controversy, there is often some truth on both sides. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), has offered alternative digital signature capability. Technical assessments of the alternative have turned up weaknesses, in the opinions of some experts. There is not yet an alternative to DES, unless it is to be found in NSA's Commercial Crypto Evaluation Program (CCEP) in which NSA proposes to provide algorithms which are implemented in hardware by industry and made available for civilian use. As I understand this program, NSA does not intend to release any details of the algorithms, leaving open questions about the nature and strength of the technology. Some experts will persist in the belief that such offerings have weaknesses which are deliberately built in and hidden (so-called "Trojan Horses") which will allow the agency to "break" any messages protected by this means.

The critics complained loudly that the reasoning behind the design of certain parts of the DES algorithm (specifically the "S-boxes") was never made public and therefore that the algorithm was suspect. In fact, the DES has proven to be very strong - indeed, it may be that very fact which makes it so unpalatable in some quarters to permit its unrestricted export. It may be that the CCEP technology offered is satisfactory, but this is hard to tell without knowing more about its provenance.

Presuming the wide availability of both DES and RSA technology, it seems to me appropriate and timely to re-examine US export control policy regarding these two algorithms. In all probability, any such review will require some classified testimony which will have to be heard in confidence by cleared members of your committee. I sincerely hope that the outcome will be favorable to use by US industry in international commerce, but even if the outcome results in continuation of present policy, it is timely to make such a review, in my opinion.


Vinton G. Cerf

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