History of the First Crypto War
As we’re all gearing up to fight the Second Crypto War over governments’ demands to be able to back-door any cryptographic system, it pays for us to remember the history of the First Crypto War. The Open Technology Institute has written the story of those years in the mid-1990s.
The act that truly launched the Crypto Wars was the White House’s introduction of the “Clipper Chip” in 1993. The Clipper Chip was a state-of-the-art microchip developed by government engineers which could be inserted into consumer hardware telephones, providing the public with strong cryptographic tools without sacrificing the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access unencrypted versions of those communications. The technology relied on a system of “key escrow,” in which a copy of each chip’s unique encryption key would be stored by the government. Although White House officials mobilized both political and technical allies in support of the proposal, it faced immediate backlash from technical experts, privacy advocates, and industry leaders, who were concerned about the security and economic impact of the technology in addition to obvious civil liberties concerns. As the battle wore on throughout 1993 and into 1994, leaders from across the political spectrum joined the fray, supported by a broad coalition that opposed the Clipper Chip. When computer scientist Matt Blaze discovered a flaw in the system in May 1994, it proved to be the final death blow: the Clipper Chip was dead.
Nonetheless, the idea that the government could find a palatable way to access the keys to encrypted communications lived on throughout the 1990s. Many policymakers held onto hopes that it was possible to securely implement what they called “software key escrow” to preserve access to phone calls, emails, and other communications and storage applications. Under key escrow schemes, a government-certified third party would keep a “key” to every device. But the government’s shift in tactics ultimately proved unsuccessful; the privacy, security, and economic concerns continued to outweigh any potential benefits. By 1997, there was an overwhelming amount of evidence against moving ahead with any key escrow schemes.
The Second Crypto War is going to be harder and nastier, and I am less optimistic that strong cryptography will win in the short term.