Published: Tuesday 15 July 1997

Money, credit card information, and even littte packets of 'electronic money', can now be sent over the Internet without the risk of a third party intercepting and using it. The prospects of a digital economy, in which people 'pay per view' for access to individual pages on the World Wide Web, are quite real. The US government has permitted the computer firm Hewlett-Packard, and the software company RSA, to export software offering'strong encryption' of computer data.

Although European companies already have similar systems of encryption, the US had banned companies from exporting such software. It has stifled international digital commerce, because users of the Internet could not entirely be sure that their information was not being decoded.

Encryption programmes use mathematical formulas to scramble information, such as electronic mail messages or credit card numbers, to render them unreadable to computer users without a password, or a 'software key', that can unlock the coded material. Keys that are less than 56 binary digits long can be cracked with comparative ease. 'Strong' encryption consists of keys that are 128 or more bits long, which could take years to crack using conventional computers.

Under existing US laws, programmes using 'strong encryption' have been classed with munitions - and banned from export. US software companies have protested that the ban prevents the selling of programmes to countries which would Me to use them. The US government had earlier contended that it could not allow the export of these pro- grammes because it needed to be able to intercept terrorists' messages.

The need to have the same encryption staftdard available inside and outside the US is important to facilitate commerce on the Internet.

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