NEC-4 and Software Security Revisited

Almost a year ago, I tore the folks at Lawrence Livermore National Lab a new one over their security policies for a computer algorithm called NEC-4. The short version is that this is a very useful antenna modeling algorithm developed with government funds, but LLNL keeps it locked behind a seemingly absurd paywall. Students, amateur scientists, and would-be entrepreneurs interested in wireless technology have to pay a steep entry fee if they want access to this highly useful tool, even though it was developed entirely with taxpayers’ money.

Recently, though, I received a note from someone at another research center who explained the situation much better than the LLNL folks do. His name is Jim. Here are some excerpts from our exchange:

I work at JPL, and it costs us substantially more than $300 to distribute export controlled software, just to handle the paperwork. There’s at least 3 people involved: the “software release authority” who deals with all software distribution; the export control record keeping person; and me. One of the first two runs the name/business name through some search databases. Pretty fast, but by the time you’re done, you’ve probably consumed a couple or 3 work hours.

Part of the problem is that even for non-export controlled software, there’s a record keeping requirement imposed by Congress. They want to know how many people are benefiting from using the government developed software so we have to keep records so we can report to some nameless entity who can summarize it in a report that probably never gets read except when someone complains to the IG or when some Congressperson gets interested.

Apparently I was mistaken about the actual costs of distributing this software. I stand corrected: it probably does really cost LLNL a few hundred dollars to provide a copy, solely because the algorithm is covered by US export control laws. More on that in a moment.

Jim also commented on my contention that the “security check” required to obtain the algorithm is meaningless. It seems that I was more or less correct about that:

As for “paying a U.S. person to get the CDROM and forward it,” that’s a pretty clear violation of the export control laws. The person doing this is setting themselves up for pretty severe penalties if the govt got its dander up. Oddly, not much is required in terms of authenticating or verifying that the person you give it to is actually a U.S. Person under the law. Their statement that they are is sufficient. They can lie, and that puts the violation on the recipient, not the sender.

Last I checked, the countries and organizations we need to worry about are universally willing to lie and break our laws, so “put[ting] the violation on the recipient” accomplishes nothing.

In other words, export control laws mean that LLNL has to keep this useful algorithm locked behind a paywall, and has to cite “security” as a justification for that, but it would be much easier for everyone – and no less secure – to make the thing freely available.

There may be a way out of this silliness, though:

In reality, what someone should do is see if they can reclassify it as not export controlled. If you were to seek a determination for NEC-4 today, I doubt it would wind up controlled. It’s unclear to me what parts of it triggered the controls in the first place, but probably it’s the parts with improved models for insulated antennas submerged in lossy dielectric mediums (like seawater) and that probably triggered the export control rating. However, I would think that stuff has been published in the open literature by now.

It sounds like a properly motivated member of Congress could accomplish a lot of good here. Removing NEC-4 from export control and making it freely available would allow amateur experimenters, students, and other interested folks to learn more about antenna modeling and maybe come up with some new ideas. It would also enable the Open Source community to work on the underlying algorithm, possibly improving it. With breakthroughs in wireless communication now producing massive economic benefits, these are topics that could clearly use more brains. I certainly plan to make that argument in a letter to my representatives. If you agree, here’s where you can find your Congressional representative, and here’s the contact information for your Senator.