Australia joins US in tightening control of encryption exports

The US has persuaded 32 countries to permit tightened control of their export of encryption software -- a measure which the US has long maintained is necessary to properly balance national-security interests against personal privacy.

Australia is one of 33 members of the Wassenaar Arrangement, an agreement on conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies -- items which could be used for civilian or military purposes. The members agreed to restrict exports of 56-bit general encryption products, according to a US Department of Commerce spokesman. In addition, Wassenaar signatories agreed to restrict export of mass-market products with keys more than 64-bits long, he said.

But one observer said it was unclear whether the US has really convinced the countries to shift gears and issue encryption controls.

The Wassenaar Arrangement calls for member countries to pass local legislation, at their discretion, if they want its provisions to take effect, according to Barry Steinhardt, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US-based, non-profit civil-liberties group. It is not clear whether the new piece of the agreement follows suit or whether it is mandatory for the signatories to pass the legislation, according to Steinhardt. If the new controls are not mandatory, nothing much has changed, because almost all the signatories have well-established policies of permitting the unfettered export of encryption, he said.

"The question is whether this is a largely meaningless concession to the US or whether it has some teeth in it," Steinhardt said.

Most Wassenaar countries are in Europe, with some representation from South America and Asia/Pacific. The current signatories are: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the UK and US.

More information on Wassenaar can be found at http://www.wassenaar.org/

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