Clipper Gives Big Brother Far Too Much Power

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Computerworld
  • May 31, 1993

In April, the Clinton administration, cleaning up business left over from the Bush administration, introduced a cryptography initiative that gives government the ability to conduct electronic surveillance. The first fruit of this initiative is Clipper, a National Security Agency (NSA)-designed, tamper-resistant VLSI chip. The stated purpose of this chip is to secure telecommunications.

Clipper uses a classified encryption algorithm. Each Clipper chip has a special key, not needed for messages, that is used only to encrypt a copy of each user’s message key. Anyone who knows the key can decrypt wiretapped communications protected with this chip. The claim is that only the government will know this key and will use it only when authorized to do so by a court.

There are numerous problems with Clipper: cryptographic problems, design problems, policy problems and philosophy problems.

Classifying the encryption algorithm is wrong. The NSA’s refusal to allow public scrutiny of the algorithm gives ammunition to those who believe there is a secret “back door” that will permit the NSA to decrypt messages at will. The only way to assuage these fears is to allow academic cryptographers to examine the algorithm and publish their findings.

Clipper is also based on the Orwellian assumption that the government has a right to listen to private communications. It promotes the power of government over the power of the individual. It assumes that he government is the good guy and private citizens are bad guys.

Why is the government now claiming there is something wrong with a private citizen trying to keep a secret from the government? This is not simply a little proposal of the government in some obscure area; it is a preemptive and unilateral attempt to usurp powers that previously belonged to the people. It also represents a fundamental shift in overnment policy, from a passive role of listening to an active role of regulating new technologies.

Clipper forces individuals to unconditionally trust that the government will respect our privacy. But consider this: The same law enforcement authorities that illegally tapped Martin Luther King Jr.’s phones can easily tap a phone protected with Clipper. During the past five years, local police authorities have been charged criminally or sued civilly in numerous jurisdictions for conducting illegal wiretaps.

As long as Clipper is optional, people who desire real privacy (both honest citizens and criminals) will use other encryption methods. However, because these methods will be secure from wiretapping, I expect the federal government to introduce legislation banning nonescrowed encryption and to reintroduce legislation forcing telephone-switch manufacturers to add circuitry to allow wiretapping.

By mandating a solution before allowing public discussion, the administration is overlooking some very important questions: How effective are wiretaps in law enforcement? Why would any intelligent criminal use flawed encryption such as Clipper?

And, most importantly, is the ability to conduct wiretaps more important than the right to personal privacy?

Categories: Computer and Information Security, Laws and Regulations, National Security Policy, Privacy and Surveillance

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.