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The Clipper Threat

By Curtis Lang on Oct 11, 1993

Originally published in New Media Magazine

         Bill Clinton promised voters in 1992 that he would shrink the defense budget, reorder Cold War priorities and rein in America's undercover warriors who had sold guns to the Ayatollah, supported an illegal Nicaraguan war, bankrolled Manuel Noriega and secretly armed Saddam Hussein.

     Despite the promises, this year's $250 billion defense budget looks uncannily familiar.  At 93 percent of 1992 levels, it's old brew in new bottles--call it "Bush Lite."  Between 1993 and 1994, classified spending on Pentagon procurement programs increased by $700 million.  Under Clinton, cops act more like spooks than ever before.  FBI stings, wiretaps, IRS setups and undercover operations by local law enforcement are on the rise.  More controversial, Clinton has actually expanded Bush-era policies, giving the national security bureaucracy a prime role in the design of America's digital infobahn.

     The National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI are currently conducting a three-pronged attack on privacy in cyberspace.  Their weapons are the Clipper chip, Tessera and the new Digital Telephony law.  Once these are in place, America's undercover cops will have unprecedented authority over domestic communications.

     The rationale is twofold: First, national security is said to require expanded surveillance of potential terrorists.  Second, the FBI, which has already enlisted your banker and car dealer in the war on drugs by requiring them to file voluminous reports on every customer, now wants to require Silicon Valley computer wizards and telecommunications systems providers to make the war on drugs and money laundering a top priority.

     The NSA-designed Clipper chip would scramble telephone conversations and also provide a trap door for convenient government wiretapping.  Government contractors would have to use Clipper in their products.  Because software publishers, who might market Clipper alternatives, are currently prevented from exporting strong encryption products by State Department regulations governing munitions sales, Clinton's critics say that Clipper will prevent American industry from competing in a global encryption marketplace where no one wants to buy products encumbered with secretly designed trap doors.

     U.S. Rep. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) has introduced legislation to allow American companies to compete freely for what is estimated to be a $6 to $9 billion global encryption software market.

     "The United States' export control system is broken and needs to be fixed," Cantwell says.  "It was designed as a tool of the Cold War to help America fight against enemies that no longer exist."

     The Software Publishers Association is also up in arms about Clipper.  "We think [Clipper] threatens privacy and the delicate balance that we've had for over 200 years in balancing the privacy of citizens and law enforcement," argues the SPA's Doug Miller.  "We think it's going to stifle innovation.  And we think there are economic consequences."

     In January, the NSA also proposed to create a Clipper-related encryption device called Tessera that would be installed in all U.S. PCs--an easy trap door for authorized spooks and law enforcers. This would lead to NSA's dominion over records, including electronic tax returns, computerized medical payments and digital transfers of cash.  Users who need encryption would not only have to

pay for the Clipper/Tessera technology, but would also need to buy an additional layer of encryption to thwart black-data pirates who might find ways to access the government's trap doors.

     The increasing market in black data is a growing threat (see "Privacy in the Digital Age," April).  It is not encouraging to read that in January, Mykotronix, the Torrance, California, company that received a no-bid contract to manufacture the Clipper chips, had such poor internal security that the company's digital files detailing corporate financial arrangements with the NSA were stolen and posted on the Internet.

     Meanwhile, the FBI is lobbying hard for the Digital Telephony and Communications Privacy and Improvement Act of 1994.  In Congressional testimony in March, FBI director Louis B. Freeh testified that because "follow-me" phones and PDAs pull people out of the local telephone loop, the FBI has trouble tracking and wiretapping users of such devices.  The new law would require providers of wired and wireless communications systems to design new systems for easy access by law enforcers with a court order.  Hardware and software providers would have to foot the bill or pay heavy fines.

     The FBI proposal would also require phone companies presented with a wiretap order to hand over "call set-up information" on surveillance targets.  Because mobile phones and PDAs will connect with phone systems through "microcells" that would inhabit every street corner and building in America, "call set-up information" on these personal communications service users would include a detailed record of the movements of any surveillance target.

     Freeh testified that the FBI was merely adapting its activities to new technology, not expanding it.  But others disagree.  "The FBI asserts that it is not seeking expanded authority," testified Roy Neel, president of the Untied States Telephone Association.  "We must, with all due respect, disagree.  This is a level of surveillance capability unprecedented in terms of immediacy, breadth of application or capability for routine surveillance of individual citizens."

     A loose coalition of libertarian cryptographers, civil liberties attorneys, consumer advocates and computer and telco lobbyists oppose Clipper, Tessera and Digital Telephony.  This coalition, reminiscent of the Perot/Nader/Buchanan coalition that opposed NAFTA, takes comfort from a recent Time/CNN poll showing over two-thirds of Americans are opposed to Clipper.  Unfortunately, AT&T is already rolling Clipper-equipped phones off its assembly lines, and there's gloom among the strategists in the anti-Clipper camp because the issue has not touched off a populist backlash as NAFTA did.  And NAFTA passed anyway.   Meanwhile, the public is outraged about crime, and many might be willing to kiss off civil liberties in their fervor to stop criminals.

     Battle lines have been drawn, and the struggle will soon be decided in Congress.  Because there is no "natural constituency" for privacy in Washington, only a spontaneous and spirited uprising of outraged citizenry is likely to derail the transformation of our national information infrastructure into a national surveillance infrastructure.  Only those willing to defend their rights publicly will be able to hold onto them in the beckoning digital age.

WHAT CAN I DO?

1.   Join an electronic petition by sending e-mail to Computer Professionals for Social

     Responsibility, an alliance of 35 civil liberties, computer and communications industry partners

     (clipper.petition@cpsr.org).  Include "I oppose Clipper" in your message.

2.   Contact your representatives in the House and Senate.

3.   Send e-mail to Bill Clinton at president@whitehouse.gov and e-mail Al Gore at

     vicepresident@whitehouse.gov.

4.   Send e-mail to Rep. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) at cantwell@eff.org to express support

     for her bill, H.R. 3627, which would soften export controls on encryption software.

5.   Contact Sen. Paul Simon (D-Illinois) by phoning (202) 224-2152 to find out more about two

     pending privacy bills.  The Privacy for Consumers and Workers Act would establish

     safeguards to protect public and private employees from being spied on at their jobs, and the

     Privacy Protection Act of 1993 would create a national privacy commission.  Or send snail

     mail to the senator: SD-462 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510-1302.