Code of Silence Surrounds Talks on Encryption

FBI Director Louis Freeh, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco) and perhaps Atty. Gen. Janet Reno are scheduled to meet with Bill Gates and other software industry leaders in Washington on Tuesday to discuss regulation of encryption software.

But the meeting is taking place under the most cryptic of circumstances.

Feinstein's office is unwilling to even acknowledge the meeting. The FBI admits there is a meeting, but won't say when, where or with whom. And other senators and software executives are said to be miffed that they weren't invited.

"This is the politics of encryption here in Washington," said one Senate aide.

Indeed, the issue is one of the thorniest on the technology front. Encryption is data-scrambling technology that prevents electronic messages from being read by anyone but the intended recipient.

Cyber-libertarians say this ensures privacy, and the software industry says it's critical to electronic commerce. But the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are pushing to put limits on encryption for fear terrorists and other criminals will use it to conceal their plans.

Feinstein has tended to side with law enforcement, but "did some behind-the-scenes head-knocking" to get the top industry executives and government officials to sit down and work toward a compromise, Senate sources said Friday.

Other executives scheduled to attend the meeting include Jim Barksdale of Netscape Communications Corp., Eric Schmidt of Novell Inc. and Steve Case of America Online Inc.

But as word of the meeting spread last week, others tried to get in on it, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an industry supporter, and a number of software executives in town for the Business Software Alliance's annual CEO forum.

"We're disappointed that the Feinstein meeting isn't broader," said Diane Smiroldo, a spokeswoman for the alliance. So Leahy and many of these executives simply scheduled their own meeting for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Feinstein has tried to keep her meeting under wraps, convinced that a smaller crowd will be better able to find common ground. Still, observers on both sides aren't counting on a settlement.

"Law enforcement hasn't had a change of heart," said Barry Smith, an FBI supervisory special agent. "This is not a negotiating session."

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