The US government has been warned by a panel of computer scientists that its proposals for unlocking data-encryption software could increase security risks on the Internet.
Current plans would allow companies to export encrypted data, but only on the condition that decryption keys to open the data are made accessible to US enforcement officials.
The Clinton administration is currently looking at setting up relationships with "trusted" companies that will be allowed to hold the keys in secure environments. By law, the keys must be within easy reach of officials, with no more than two hours allowed between request and receipt.
However, a study by the US Center for Democracy and Technology has criticised the move. It argues that a longer period between request and receipt is needed if security is to be assured. Civil liberties groups have also attacked the government, suggesting current plans make it too easy for officials to scan personal data.
One of the scientists, Peter Neumann of research organisation SRI International, said he was concerned about the government's plans, which he said were like having "a skeleton-key to a house". He added: "It turns out a skeleton-key is easy to copy."
Germany is also critical of the US policy. The German government will not regulate data-scrambling software for at least another two years.
Instead, according to a statement , it will watch what happens in the US and "wait for Internet commerce" to mature.
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