Clipper alternatives debated

Thaddeus Beier thad at
Wed Jun 8 09:10:28 PDT 1994

This was in the Mercury News business section yesterday, June 7 1994.
It looks to me like a bunch of beltway sharks circling a big pile
of money that will soon be available again...

Reprinted without permission.

Clipper substitutes suggested

* Computer and telephone industries offer alternatives to
controversial encoding system.

By Robert S. Boyd

WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration and the computer and
telephone industries are discussing ways to resolve their
conflicts over the government's plan to enable it to eavesdrop on
coded communication.

Industry representatives hope the discussions will produce a
substitute for the controversial Clipper chip, an electronic
encoding and decoding system that the government is pushing over
opposition from the computing community and privacy advocates.

Several alternatives were suggested Monday at a conference on
cryptography and privacy attended by government and industry

At the conference, Lynn McNulty, associate director for computer
security at the National Institute of Standards and Technology,
said the administration is "willing to discuss alternatives to

McNulty said the Commerce Department is asking industry to join
in cooperative research projects to develop cryptographic
methods, both hardware and software, that would satisfy law
enforcement agencies and also be acceptable to private business.

One industry proposal woud provide computer software to law
enforcement officials that would allow them to decode encrypted
messages by suspected criminals or terrorists.

The software would replace the Clipper Chip, a hardware device
costing about $1,000 that can be placed in telephones to scramble
conversations electronically.

"Software is much cheaper than hardware," said Steve Lipner of
Trusted Information Systems, the Glenwood Md. firm that set up
the White House computer security system.

Low-cost cryptographic software could be embedded in widely used
computer applications, such as word processors or data bases,
Lipner said. "This would be a market-acceptable way to build
cryptography into high-volume products."

Another proposal discussed at Monday's conference would let
private companies, instead of the government, keep the electronic
"keys" required to decode encrypted data and conversations.
Police or the FBI could get the key by court order, such as is now
required for wiretaps, according to Jon Roberts, president of
TECSEC Inc., a security consulting form in Vienna, Va.

"The government could subpoena the key from the bank that holds
Mafia records or from the fraudulent government contractor,"
Roberts said.

Under the Clipper chip system favored by the Clinton
administration, the key would be held "in escrow" by the
government, but, to minimize the risk of abuse, it would be split
in half. One have would be held by the Treasury Department, the
other half by the Commerce Department. A court order would be
needed to get both halves to decode a message.

Privacy experts protest that splitting the key between two
departments of the executive branch offers little protection
against a rogue administration.

A third proposal discussed Monday, therefore, was to give one
half of the electronic key to the legislative or judicial branch
of government.

The Department of Justice has already ordered 9,000 Clipper chips
for distribution to federal, state, and local law enforcement
agencies. McNulty said no decision has yet been made to use the
chip in other departments.

A gloomy note was struck by Susan Landau, a staff member of a
special government-industry committee on cryptography that was
created to give Congress recommendations on how to balance the
government's needs with those of business.

After months of study, the committee, organized by the ACM, a
major industry trade group, was unable to agree on what should be
done. The committee will publish a report in July that simply
identifies unresolved issues for continued debate. They include
the cost of cryptographic security, the needs of law enforcement,
national security, international trade, privacy and civil
liberties, Landau said.

Thad Beier  Pacific Data Images  408)745-6755  thad at

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