ITAR: Still Hopeless

An article today at Wired’s Danger Room highlights the story of a University of Tennessee professor accused of violating International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, regulations by exposing a foreign national to unclassified technology.

The author of that story postulates that the fundamental problem is the confusing language in which the ITAR regulations are written. Personally, I think the problem is a lot more fundamental: ITAR applies to huge swathes of technology that have, despite the name, nothing to do with weapons. Plasma-actuated servos are all find and dandy (and nifty!), but there should be better ways of protecting them, under the law, than treating them as “arms”.

Personally, I’m reminded of the case of Phil Zimmermann, creator of – among other things – the PGP encryption program. The government spent years investigating the worldwide distribution of PGP as an arms-control violation, before eventually conceding defeat. The applicable laws were eventually changed, becoming slightly more sensible – regarding one type of item.

The parallels are eerily similar, really. In the case of PGP, the government’s concern was that potentially militarily-useful technology – to wit, a cryptographic system – developed in the United States could make its way into the sinister and menacing hands of foreign powers. (Insert obligatory over-the-top “Oh Noes!!!” here.) In the case of these plasma-actuated thingamajiggies, the government appears upset that a foreign egghead was in some small part involved in the development of the technology – the implication being that all foreigners are untrustable moles working for foreign intelligence services. That view may have had a certain validity during the cold war, but it seems fairly stupid today. Actually, given the declining state of the American educational system, it seems extremely stupid to restrict all foreigners from partaking in research on all the myriad things the State Department considers an “arm”… but that’s a completely different complaint altogether.

Despite the “International” in the name, ITAR is a purely American law – one cooked up by the government decades ago, when the world was a very different place. In my opinion, this whole brouhaha is just another sign that ITAR, a regulation so retarded one could easily believe it was thought up by the European Union on one of their bad days, is hopelessly outdated, irrelevant, and in need of a serious re-think by calm and intelligent people with at least a little bit of common sense. Of course, our government seems to be fresh out of calm and intelligent people at the moment, common sense or no, so we’d probably have to – irony of ironies – outsource the revamping of ITAR to a foreign subcontractor, and even I can see that would be a bad idea…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History, Security | on May 21st, 2008| Comments Off on ITAR: Still Hopeless

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.