A government-developed technology to protect the security of telephone conversations and other information communicated over telephone lines is meant to be used by both the government and the private sector on a strictly voluntary, as-needed basis -- and is not intended to be mandated in the future, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) official said today in congressional testimony.
In statements to both the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and House Subcommittee on Technology, Environment and Aviation, NIST Deputy Director Raymond Kammer stressed that the "voluntary key escrow" coding system "first and foremost, was devised to provide solid, first-rate cryptographic security for the protection of information held by the government when government agencies decide such protection is needed for unclassified government communications." He cited as examples the protection of tax records, Social Security records, census data and other proprietary information when transmitted over telephone lines.
At the same time, Kammer pointed out the importance of strong encryption protection for citizens and U.S. companies. Encryption "protects the individual privacy of our citizens.... Private-sector organizations can also benefit from encryption by securing their product development and marketing plans, for example. It also can protect against industrial espionage," Kammer said.
But the increasing proliferation of encryption techniques also is expected to make the law enforcement community's job more difficult, he said, and the voluntary key escrow approach provides a way for law enforcement authorities—when legally authorized—to decode messages sent over telecommunications systems using the key escrow technique. The initiative is intended to strike a balance between the needs of law enforcement and national security with the needs of businesses and individuals for security and privacy.
In every instance, Kammer stressed, the system is being made available on a strictly voluntary basis. Each federal agency can use the key escrow technology to protect its information on an as-needed basis. Companies can choose to use the system when they need excellent security -- or they can use any other encryption technologies available in the marketplace. "Let me be clear," Kammer said. "This Administration does not seek legislation to prohibit or in any way restrict the domestic use of cryptography."