An article that appeared last Friday in the Wall Street Journal suggests that at least one U.S. company is providing the Chinese government with access to proprietary U.S. source code as a condition for access to the Chinese market. What could possibly go wrong with that??

Just as a burglar, who normally suspects everyone else of having his own larcenous motives, puts extra bars on his own doors and windows, the Chinese seem to be worried that U.S. software might have backdoors that allow the U.S. to hack into Chinese systems. Imagine that.

IBM has begun allowing officials from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to examine proprietary source code—the secret sauce behind its software—in a controlled space without the ability to remove it from the room, the people said. It wasn’t clear which products IBM was allowing reviews of or how much time ministry officials can spend looking at the code. The people said the practice was new and implemented recently.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that this access, which is designed to quell Chinese fears that the U.S. will do unto China what China has done unto the U.S., is largely symbolic because the Chinese are not being given sufficient time to comb through thousands of line of code looking for back doors.

The problem here, however, is that most software programs these days, particularly ones that might have “back door” entry concerns, will have encryption; and the EAR poses special restrictions on exporting certain types of encryption source code to certain government end-users. Encryption source code that is classified as ECCN 5D002 (i.e., is not mass market) and is not publicly available is classified under section 740.17(b)(2)(i)(B) of license exception ENC. Under paragraphs (1) and (2) of the Note to 740.17(b)(2), such encryption source code can, after a classification request, be immediately exported under license exception ENC to any end-user (including a government end-user) in a Supplement 3 country and to non-government end-users in countries, such as China, which are not a Supplement 3 country. However, exports of 5D002 encryption source code that is not publicly available, i.e., that is not available by download or otherwise to members of the public, can only be exported to a government end-user outside Supplement 3, such as the Chinese government, with a licensefrom the Bureau of Industry and Security.  (A very good chart explaining the baroque complexities of  license exception ENC  can be found here.)

Now, here’s the catch. Most encryption algorithms are publicly available, but the code used by specific software to implement that algorithm is not. Indeed, if that code were publicly available, the Chinese wouldn’t need to review it, and the reviewing company would not insist that the code be examined in a “controlled space.” Indeed, you have to imagine that it is precisely the non-public code implementing the public algorithm which would be of most interest to Chinese reviewers concerned about U.S. software having back doors for Uncle Sam to come snooping.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that IBM has broken any laws here. We don’t know whether the software being examined is 5D002 software or, if it is, that IBM hasn’t applied for and received a license. Rather my point is this: companies that consider giving source code access to the Chinese should only move ahead with a great deal of caution if the software utilizes encryption.