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20 August 1998
Source of original article in German:
Source of English version:

Thanks to Telepolis and EM

Wassenaar on the Danube

Erich Moechel   20.08.98

A Small Office in Vienna Oversees the Export of Cryptography Software

Vienna - Not far from the Vienna State Opera, between the Hotel Bristol and the galleries along Ringstrasse, where Vienna presents one of its nobler faces, there is an international organization whose low profile is diametrically opposed to the weight of the tasks set out for it. Supported by 33 countries, the  Wassenaar Arrangement , whose activities overlap with those of four other agencies specializing in keeping tabs on nuclear weapons and materials used in biological warfare, regulates the worldwide movement of so-called "Dual-Use Goods and Technologies." This term is applied to products which not only play a role in the civilian realm but are also of possible use in war. Much to the dismay of the inter-net-tional IT industry as well as the Global Internet Liberty Campaign , the Wassenaar Arrangement files the encryption software necessary for both secure e-commerce and the protection of private communications under  Category 5.2 .

A tiny, street-level sign on the building at Mahlerstrasse 14, a camera over the buzzer and solid double doors on the fourth floor lead to a starkly sober interior: gray carpet set against light wood and bare white walls.

"We're not actually an organization," says Glenn Sibbit, who formerly served the Canadian government and the OECD as a telecommunications expert, "but rather, a clearing house that processes the decisions of the delegates of the signing countries in the plenary meetings. There are no intrigues being cooked up in any back rooms here."
"There's really no reason for paranoia," adds Dirk Weicke, Sibbit's token German expert in the Wassenaar office, with a polite smile. "We wouldn't even have the personnel for such things."

True. Including the cleaning crew, all of ten people are on the payroll of the Wassenaar Arrangement which is responsible for keeping an eye on the export of so-called "conventional" weapons and the components that make them. Even though many see the Declaration of Wassenaar as a direct successor of the  Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), which expired in 1994, the Wassenaar experts themselves don't particular like to look at it this way. COCOM was "not a direct antecedent," say Weicke and Sibbit in unison, but rather, a "previous regime," belonging to a different period (the Cold War) and operating under a completely different set of circumstances than Wassenaar does today.

This distancing is understandable in light of the fact that  COCOM was located directly in the U.S. embassy in Paris and was generally known to be a foreign outpost for various U.S. intelligence services.

The cleaning personnel in the Wassenaar office has more to see to than usual these days. A round hole yawns widely in the ceiling of the office through which a stairway will soon lead. Because more space is needed, more rooms in the fifth floor of the building dating back to the turn of the century have been rented out. Because each of the 33 member countries are free to assign experts to the working groups as they wish, well over a hundred people have often crowded into the large meeting room which, optically alone, serves a need for symbolic neutrality.

A meeting of experts will take place this year as long as there will be a related plenary meeting, but that is about all that can be confirmed. Sibbit and Weicke aren't in a position to give out any further information concerning the meetings since these are all viewed as "privileged diplomatic communications" requiring strictest secrecy. Just as the final version of the  Arrangement of 1996 as well as the Amendments which have been added since are not to be found on the Web site of the organization, but rather, elsewhere, so, too, is one referred to other sources when one asks after further information on the planned proceedings.

Free Software exempted from export regulations... with one exception

In mid-September, a Wassenaar meeting of experts will take place during which the regulation of the export of cryptography software will be discussed as well as possible amendments to the Wassenaar Arrangement.

With the exception of Russia and France, where secure encryption programs are banned, the U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand have each added national "amendments" to the Wassenaar Arrangement. The premise outlined in the "General Software Note" in the Arrangement of 1996 stating that all freely available software ("public domain") is not to be subject to export regulations will be lifted to a certain point in the national amendments. It's no coincidence that this point is always related to news encryption software.

The reason is clear. The program that's been freely available for years, Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), specifically, the user friendly Version 5.5.3i is about to be established as the de facto standard for secure encryption worldwide. Because unencrypted fax and telephone communications are increasingly being replaced by encrypted email, a global surveillance network such as the worldwide surveillance system Echelon , run by the U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand, sees its operations threatened.

Cryptography is (not) a weapon?!

Now these countries are beginning to pressure other members to restrict the free exchange of cryptography software in general. In July, the International Crypto Campaign was created with the not so subtly hidden goal of striking  encryption software from the Wassenaar Arrangement altogether. The central argument of the initiative begun in Australia is that cryptography is not a weapon, but rather, a necessary mechanism for the realization of the right to communicate privately on the Internet and elsewhere.

Another reason those behind the global surveillance systems are in a hurry: The  Cryptozilla Group is tirelessly working to ensure that this right will quite soon be realized for countless users -- the Netscape browser is being equipped with the potential for strong cryptography.

 Erich Moechel is a freelance journalist and an Internet consultant in Vienna, and publisher of the daily news filter,  q/depesche .

Translation by  David Hudson


 Wassenaar Arrangement

 Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls


 Export Control of crypto-software

 Pretty Good Privacy

 Version 5.5.3i

 Global Surveillance Net


 International Crypto Campaign

 Cryptozilla Group

 German Translation