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5.2 The Clipper Controversy

Before examining the current state of Clipper, let's re-examine the root of the controversy. Clipper is a computer chip that encodes digital voice and data communications using an encryption algorithm called Skipjack, which is a product of the National Security Agency (NSA). The chip is meant for use in telephones, fax machines, and modems.

What makes Clipper different from other encryption devices, and what has drawn the ire of many citizens, is that the chip has a trap door that government investigators can open to wiretap Clipper-equipped devices. The door's key, which is unique to each chip, has two parts. In the government's plan, the two halves of the key would be held separately in escrow by the Treasury and Commerce Departments. To use the keys, federal agents would need to obtain a warrant.

It sounds safe enough, but more than 45,000 Internet users disagreed and signed an electronic petition against Clipper. Many people fear the government could misuse Clipper to harm innocent people and businesses.

The FBI and NSA argued that the government was not about to become the Peeping Tom of the online world and that the security holes were needed for criminal investigations. Civil libertarians on the Internet replied that Clipper and the concepts behind it were unacceptable. They argued that even if the security holes were used for acceptable purposes, there was no guarantee that future administrations might not use this against them or their children. In particular, they objected to the keys being held by the government. But the federal government, in essence, shrugged and continued to push for Clipper acceptance in telecom and datacom businesses.

Clipper was not home free yet. Against a mounting storm of protest, the executive branch found Clipper under siege from all sides. This led to such odd alliances as the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) working with conservative Republican senators against the Clipper initiative.

All this protest might have gone for naught until AT&T Bell Labs announced that one of its engineers had shown that Skipjack could be broken. Against a rising storm of protest, Vice President Gore wrote a letter on July 20, 1994 to House of Representatives member Maria Cantwell (Wash.) in which he said he believed there must be further public comment on Clipper.

Cantwell seized on this as a face-saving maneuver signaling the end of the executive branch's support for Clipper and announced victory for the anti-Clipper forces. She soon was seconded in this interpretation by the EFF, and the Clipper controversy sank from sight.

next up previous
Next: 5.3 A Chip with Up: 5 The legal issue: Previous: 5.1 Introduction
Denis Arnaud