The government should move quickly to promote the use of powerful codes and other computer security measures that reduce the potential for computer crime, according to a new report from the National Research Council.
Experts agree that the public telephone network, electric power grid, air traffic-control system, and other important public and private computer systems are vulnerable to attack and need better protection.
The study, by a respected group of experts, challenges a longstanding position of the Clinton administration opposing the widespread private use of powerful computer codes, unless balanced with easy access by authorized government officials.
Administration officials had argued that private use of the strongest codes would seriously undermine the ability of law enforcement agencies to track criminals and protect national security.
But the report, to be released today, concludes that general use of the best currently available technology to electronically “lock” computer data is the greatest deterrent against computer crime by hackers or foreign governments.
“We believe government policy should support the broad use of cryptography,” said Kenneth Dam, chairman of the committee of 16 experts who wrote the report over the past 20 months.
“We believe it presents problems for the legitimate concerns of national security and law enforcement. But we also point out that strong cryptography is needed because of the proliferation of computer-based crimes, that it would deal with national security issues by protecting vital public networks.”
An administration official said the White House agreed with most of the conclusions of the NRC report. However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that any computer system that didn’t include a way for authorities to decipher data would “pose very costly and time-consuming problems” for law enforcement officials.
The debate over computer security is a central concern of the United States high-tech industry and business in general, which have been battling powerful interests in the administration - notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency.
The security agencies want easy access to keys that will permit them to break private codes and want to restrict sales of American cryptographic technology abroad, to the anger of high-tech companies here.
The high-tech companies maintain that government export restrictions on the best code technology have hurt their sales abroad and that competitors from Britain, France and Japan are using the opportunity to sell their security technology.
The larger business community is also greatly concerned about computer security because so much of U.S. business and banking are now conducted using computers.
Americans also rely heavily on certain of those computerized systems in their daily lives: banking computers run ATMs; the telephone network, largely computerized, handles phone calls and computer traffic; computers allow air-traffic controllers to protect passengers in the skies from collisions.