Paper on Codes Is Sent Despite U.S. Objections

By John Markoff
The New York Times

August 9, 1989

A paper describing fast and inexpensive ways of keeping computer information private has been distributed by computer around the world, over the objections of the secretive Federal agency that gathers electronic intelligence.

The wide circulation of the paper has renewed a dispute pitting national security against academic freedom.

The paper, written by a Xerox Corporation computer scientist, was obtained by a San Francisco independent computer consultant strongly opposed to a request by the agency, the National Security Agency, that Xerox restrict its circulation on the ground of national security. The consultant, John Gilmore, transmitted it on a computer network to more than 8,000 sites around the world.

Business and Individual Use

Mr. Gilmore said he had decided to transmit the paper to make a point about what he considers the suppression of valuable information on the technology of writing and deciphering messages in code, or cryptography.

While many people normally associate coded messages with spies and government agencies, Mr. Gilmore and others say encryption can be used to increase privacy for businesses as well as individuals using computers and computer networks.

''The availability of fast, secure cryptography to the worldwide public will enable us to build much more secure computer systems and networks,'' Mr. Gilmore said. This, he said, will increase individual privacy and make it harder to write malicious programs that can be spread between computers. These viruses and worms can destroy or alter data.

The unauthorized distribution of the paper illustrates how easy it has become to circumvent efforts to prevent the transfer of technology from country to country.

Over the past 12 years the National Security Agency has consistently opposed the publication or transmission of research on encryption technology. The agency is concerned that advances in cryptography will make it harder to break coded transmissions sent by foreign intelligence agents in the United States to their governments. The agency also believes that it will have more trouble protecting its own codes.

Industry Called Curtailed

Some scholars maintain that the security agency's policy has chilled cryptographic research as well as limited the development of a cryptographic industry in the United States.

''The N.S.A. has bullied the academic community,'' said George Davida, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin. ''This dispute is typical of the kinds of things that I have warned about. The N.S.A. does not want to see research into cryptography.''

He said the security agency had fought efforts to establish a cryptographic industry in this country. ''It's ironic that we are the leading country in cryptographic research, but we have no products,'' Mr. Davida said. An industry in the field would make it much easier for personal computer and telephone users to obtain cryptogrphic equipment to protect the information they use.

The disputed paper, entitled ''A Software Encryption Function'' and written by Ralph C. Merkle of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California, discusses several techniques to provide fast encryption less expensively. Most encryption systems today require expensive equipment to provide huge amounts of computing power.

The paper also discusses in some technical detail a Xerox encryption technology that referred to the design of what cryptographers call an S-Box, a coding mechanism. The security agency has restricted the publication of information about that technology as it related to an official government standard, the data encryption standard.

Xerox executives said that the paper was reviewed by the security agency and that agency officials told the company that they preferred it not be published.

A spokeswoman for the security agency, Cynthia Beck, said the agency had no record of a review of the paper. But Xerox officials insisted that the agency had asked that the paper not be published.

Colleagues Review Paper

Mr. Merkle gave the paper to several colleagues to review earlier this year, and Xerox said it presented the paper to Government officials for review in an effort to obtain a license to export a computer program. A copy of the paper was passed to Mr. Gilmore by one of the reviewers, who was concerned that its circulation had been restricted by the security agency.

Mr. Gilmore said he had been told by officials close to Xerox that the company deferred publication of the paper out of concern that publication would jeopardize the company's business dealings with the intelligence agency.

Xerox executives disputed this. ''It's our business whether we publish it or not,'' said William Spencer, Xerox's vice president for research. ''It's a question of a business decision that had nothing to do with N.S.A. pressure.''

Ms. Beck said the security agency has a voluntary program under which it screens corporate and academic papers to see if they offer information that is detrimental to national security. She said the agency approves about 93 percent of the papers submitted, and she emphasized that it is a voluntary program.

Mr. Gilmore could not face any criminal charges for his action, and a Xerox official said the company would not pursue a civil case against him.

Letter of Disagreement

Mr. Merkle, who has refused comment on the incident, sent a short letter to the computer sites the paper was distributed to, saying he disagreed with Mr. Gilmore's action. The computers are on a network, Usenet, that allows people to send computer programs and electronic messages.

In 1977, a public dispute broke out between the National Security Agency and cryptographers after a Government secrecy order was imposed on an encryption device invented by Mr. Davida. That order and the resulting protest led to the current system of voluntary cooperation with the security agency.

Under this system, many cryptographers submit copies of technical papers to the agency before publication, giving the agency an opportunity to request the suppression of any sensitive material. Not all mathematicians abide by the arrangement, seeing it as a threat to the free exchange of ideas on which research depends.

Other researchers believe that the Government's security concerns are relevant and that the arrangement is a workable one. Many universities and corporate research departments cooperate with the security agency, as does the National Science Foundation.

Copyright 1989