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Clipper FAQ

The Clipper Chip

August 1995

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

See also the RSA FAQ

What is the Clipper Chip?

It is a cryptographic device purportedly intended to protect private communications while at the same time permitting government agents to obtain the "keys" upon presentation of what has been vaguely characterized as "legal authorization." The "keys" would be held by two government "escrow agents" and would enable the government to access the encrypted private communication. While Clipper would be used to encrypt voice transmissions, a similar device known as Capstone would be used to encrypt data.

Who developed the underlying technology?

The cryptographic algorithm, known as Skipjack, was developed by the National Security Agency (NSA), a super-secret military intelligence agency responsible for intercepting foreign government communications and breaking the codes that protect such transmissions. In 1987, Congress passed the Computer Security Act, a law intended to limit NSA's role in developing standards for the civilian communications system. In spite of that legislation, the agency has played a leading role in the Clipper initiative and other civilian security proposals. NSA has classified the Skipjack algorithm on national security grounds, thus precluding independent evaluation of the system's strength. CPSR has filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the disclosure of the secret algorithm and other information concerning the Clipper plan.

What is the government's rationale for Clipper?

The key-escrow system was developed at the urging of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, which claim that the increasing availability of strong encryption programs will interfere with their ability to conduct wiretapping. No evidence in support of these claims has been released -- in fact, FBI documents obtained through litigation by CPSR indicate that no such difficulties have been reported by FBI field offices or other federal law enforcement agencies.

How important is wiretapping to law enforcement agencies?

Electronic surveillance is just one of many investigative techniques available to law enforcement. In fact, it is not a widely used technique -- in 1992, fewer than 900 wiretap warrants were issued to state and federal law enforcement agencies. It is to protect the viability of that small number of wiretaps from an unsubstantiated risk that the FBI and NSA have proposed to compromise the security of billions of electronic transactions.

What is the current status of the Clipper plan?

On February 4, the Administration announced the formal adoption of the "Escrowed Encryption Standard," which is the technical specification for the Clipper system. This action means that Clipper will become the encryption standard within the government -- all cryptographic products for government use must comply with the standard (i.e., contain the key- escrow mechanism) and all individuals and businesses wishing to transmit secure communications to government agencies will eventually be obliged to use the NSA-developed technology.

Will the Clipper standard become mandatory?

The Administration maintains that Clipper will be a "voluntary" standard outside of the government, but many industry observers question the reality of this claim. The government exerts enormous pressure in the marketplace, and it is unlikely that alternative means of encryption will remain viable. Further, the possibility of Clipper becoming mandatory at some time in the future is quite real given the underlying rationale for the system. If criminals do, indeed, intend to use encryption to evade electronic surveillance, they are unlikely to voluntarily use the Clipper technology.

What can I do to oppose Clipper?

Sign the electronic petition against the Clipper plan that is being organized by CPSR. Stay informed of relevant developments by reading the CPSR Alert and other periodic announcements. And consider lending your financial support to CPSR's campaign to protect the privacy of electronic communications.

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