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Senator McCain and "Internet Cryptography"

In honor of the electoral season, I'm sharing an old photograph. The occasion was a visit by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to Secure Computing in June, 1999. We discussed possible revisions to cryptographic export controls, and he posed for photos, holding a copy of Internet Cryptography, which was 'recently published' back then.

I don't want to turn this into a political blog - this posting simply reports on the visit.

Sen. McCain was one of several Republican legislators who visited Secure Computing that summer. This was at the high water mark of the Dot Com Boom. The rumor was that the VP for marketing wanted to make some contacts inside the Republican party, possibly to open future job opportunities. I don't know if that was indeed the reason for all these visits.

Clearly, the legislators were there to hobnob with Silicon Valley types. Some also saw it as a possibility to collect more campaign donations. After one senator's visit, employees all received an e-mail explaining how to go about donating to that senator's campaign.

Sen. McCain had more class than that. His visit generated the most excitement for obvious reasons: he's always been a colorful character and even back then he was actively campaigning for the presidential nomination.

At the time, it was extremely difficult to export anything with a crypto key size larger than the Data Encryption Standard (DES), which used a paltry 56 bits. Sen. McCain had sponsored legislation to allow 64-bit keys. Our job was to try to educate him some more on the subject in hopes of getting longer, more practical export key sizes.

The main argument against the export controls was that foreign vendors were already building and selling strong encryption products. US export restrictions didn't prevent foreigners from using stronger encryption: the restrictions simply prevented US vendors from selling products to foreign buyers. Sen. McCain gave a little smile upon hearing that argument, and we'd clearly made our case to him.

A few months later, the Clinton administration published new export rules on their own, eliminating the point of congressional action.

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