Ottawa-based Entrust Technologies Ltd. has sidestepped controversial export regulations, bringing software to individual computer users that enables them to protect their computer files and E-mail from prying eyes.
The Entrust software, called Solo, can be downloaded free of charge from the company's World Wide Web site, and used by individuals to encrypt any kind of computer file or messages, to compress them, and to authenticate digital signatures.
Entrust will export it from Canada under a section of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that covers packaged, or shrink-wrapped software. Entrust chief executive officer John Ryan said the federal government has ruled that Solo falls under that GATT section.
The company says it's giving away the software to non-commercial users in order to build enthusiasm for the esoteric world of data encryption products. Commercial users can buy it for $49 a user.
There are already several other free encryption programs available on the Internet, but Solo is a bit fancier. It's the first to adhere to an international technology standard, and it's generally easier to use than some of its predecessors, which were created by and for people comfortable with the complex algorithms of computer cryptography.
``This is not a loophole. We do comply withSolo scrambles text messages, data bases, spread sheets, address books, or just about anything else you might store on a computer or send over a computer network. Then it squeezes them to save space and locks them up with a mathematical key that is effectively unbreakable.
all the relevant rules in the U.S. and Canada.''
Because it is aimed at individual users, Solo is a bit of a departure for Entrust. the seven-month-old Northern Telecom Ltd. spinoff has specialized in software that enables organizations to secure their digital data with high-powered encryption technology.
But some organizations that have bought Entrust encryption technology for their enterprise-wide computer systems haven't been able to exchange secure files and messages with suppliers, employees, or other individuals who are outside their system, said Mr. Ryan.
Solo enables them to do that, and lets any individual exchange secure communications with any other individual also using the product.
"It's a natural extension of Entrust's product line", said Brad Ross, executive vice-president of marketing and product management at Entrust.
With Solo, Entrust technology can now be used to secure data on anything from a single-user system to networks of tens of millions of users, the company said.
Entrust's target market is business travellers who use lap-top computers to gain access over phone lines to their corporate computer networks, software product developers, consultants who have access to their clients' data bases, or small office/home office users.
Software such as Solo is at the centre of a long-running debate between the international law enforcement community and technology libertarians.
Solo uses 128-bit encryption technology, also referred to as "strong" encryption, making it effectively unbreakable with today's computer technology.
Strong encryption is so secure that police officials in Canada, the United States, and around the world have said it could seriously hamper their traditional investigative practices.
Philip Zimmerman, an American who created a strong encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, was the subject of a lengthy U.S. Justice Department investigation after that program began being distributed internationally over the Internet.
The U.S. Attorney's Office charged Mr. Zimmerman with violating export restrictions, but eventually dropped those charges last year.
Solo is being exported from Canada, so it requires no U.S. approvals. But Canadian and U.S. laws are similar on the export of strong encryption technology.
Solo meets all applicable rules and regulations, the company says.
"This is not a loophole", said Mr. Ryan. "We do comply with all the relevant rules in the U.S. and Canada."
Entrust, which was spun off in January and is still more than 70 per cent owned by Northern Telecom, will have revenue of $30-million (U.S.) to $35-million by the end of the year, said Mr. Ryan.