Export Controls:

System for Controlling Exports of High Performance Computing Is Ineffective

GAO-01-10: Published: Dec 18, 2000. Publicly Released: Jan 17, 2001.

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The U.S. government controls the export of high performance computers to sensitive destinations on the basis of foreign policy and national security concerns. The current control system for high performance computers is ineffective because it focuses on controlling individual machines and cannot prevent countries of concern from linking or clustering many lower performance uncontrolled computers to collectively perform at higher levels than current export control allows. The current system uses the measure of millions of theoretical operations per second as a way to classify and control high power computers meant for export. However, this system, as well as three remedies suggested by the Department of Commerce, do not solve the problems posed by clustering.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Action not taken.

    Matter: Since the Departments of Commerce and Defense disagreed with recommendations which GAO believes are still valid and needed, Congress may wish to institute a requirement that the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and State, convene a panel of experts to conduct a comprehensive assessment of and report to Congress on possible ways of addressing the shortcomings associated with controlling individual high performance computers, including, but not limited to, the ideas noted in this report.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No action taken.

    Matter: To address the issue of countermeasures that may be necessary to overcome the use of sensitive technologies and technical information exported to countries of concern, Congress may wish to consider instituting a requirement that the Secretary of Defense determine and report on what U.S. countermeasures are necessary, if any, to respond to computing-related enhancements of the military or proliferation capabilities of countries of concern, as GAO has recommended in this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our December 18, 2000 report "Export Controls: System for Controlling Exports of High Performance Computing is Ineffective" (GAO-01-10), we recommended that the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with other relevant agencies, convene a panel of experts to conduct a comprehensive assessment and report to the Congress on ways of addressing the shortcomings of computer export controls. In response to this recommendation, and at the request of the Defense Technology Security Administration and Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security, Commerce's Information Systems Technical Advisory Council (ISTAC) convened a panel of government and industry representatives to develop a replacement for the current method of measuring the composite theoretical performance of high performance computers. ISTAC advises the Department of Commerce on the technical parameters for export controls applicable to dual-use commodities and the administration of these controls. Composite theoretical performance is currently measured in millions of theoretical operations per second. The ISTAC experts met through the spring and summer months of 2004 and reached a consensus on using a new simpler method referred to as the Adjusted Peak Performance proposal.

    Recommendation: Since the current export control system for high performance computers cannot prevent countries of concern from obtaining high performance computing capabilities, the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and State, should convene a panel of experts to comprehensively assess and report to Congress on possible ways of addressing the shortcomings of computer export controls, including, but not limited to the ideas noted in this report. For example, the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, which researches computer systems' performance and promotes the effective evaluation and efficient use of advanced computers, might participate in the panel because it designs evaluations that economically and reliably characterize high performance computer designs. This assessment should report on the costs and benefits of each proposed idea, including its technical feasibility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No action taken.

    Recommendation: The report required by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 concerning countermeasures that may be necessary to overcome the use of sensitive technologies and technical information exported to countries of concern is not required to include an assessment of the cumulative impact of exports of nonlicensed computers, such as those that could be clusteredi. The Secretary of Defense should determine what U.S. countermeasures are necessary, if any, to respond to computing-related enhancements of the military proliferation capabilities of countries of concern.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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