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New Technology Thwarts Card Forgers, but U.S. Orders Secrecy

February 23, 1987

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ An Israeli cryptologist says he has invented an economical method of shielding computers, credit cards, passports and drivers’ licenses from possible forgery.

The system involves software programs he has developed as well as so-called ″smart″ cards - wallet-sized plastic strips containing small microprocessors with tiny memories, Adi Shamir said in an interview.

Shamir, 34, and two students, Amos Fiat and Uriel Feige, developed the system at the Weizmann Institute, Israel’s largest independent research center.

Last July, the institute applied for a U.S. patent, saying the system had potential applications in a wide variety of commercial and military uses.

In January, Shamir said, he received a letter from the U.S. Commerce Department telling him he faced prosecution if he disclosed information about his findings.

″I was sitting in my office here in Israel and got a very official-looking letter from the U.S. Department of Commerce stating that unless I fully comply with a long list of regulations I would be jailed for two years and be threatened with a $10,000 fine,″ he said.

The case raises questions about the extent to which the U.S. government can restrict private or academic research in sensitive areas, especially when it is carried out by non-Americans.

″I was born in Israel, raised in Israel and educated in Israel,″ Shamir said. ″That’s why I was surprised to get this letter.″

He was to deliver a scientific paper on the project in May to a conference on theoretical computer science in New York City. After receiving the letter, he wrote to the program committee about the order, which required the committee to retrieve and destroy all advance copies of his paper.

Shamir said he heard from several sources that the U.S. government was about to rescind its gag order.

″I got lots of promises that it is about to be lifted, but I am not sure if it has or has not been lifted so far,″ he said, adding that he would await formal notice before discussing the project in detail.

Kenneth Cage, an attorney with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, said he could not comment on the specifics of a pending patent application. He said his office has the power to issue secrecy orders to U.S. citizens if release of information in a proposed patent is deemed harmful to national security.

Of 125,000 patent applications last year, about 6,000 were relayed to the Defense Department for review and secrecy orders eventually were issued on about 150, Cage said.

Shamir attributes the secrecy order in his case to a bureaucratic foulup, perhaps stemming from the application’s mention of possible military uses that were not specified.

″Everything that has to do with secrecy and security has military applications, but I think the new invention is particulary useful in the commercial sector because this is the sector which requires cheap and efficient techniques and where people do not trust each other,″ he said.

His invention enables people to prove something without giving away important information.

Shamir’s work is an outgrowth of a mathematical discovery called zero- knowledge proof, which allows one mathematician to convince another of a proposition’s truth without revealing details of the proof.

In the case of credit cards, such a technique can be used to prove a credit card is valid without giving the number to someone who would misuse it.

″You can go to a store owned by the Mafia and nothing will happen to the security of your credit card,″ he said, adding that merchants also were protected because there was no way to forge a smart card.

The same technique could protect computer systems from invasion by hackers.

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