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Seattle CPSR/Clipper Chip Policy FAQ
Seattle CPSR
Information Policy Fact Sheet

Encryption and the Clipper Chip



On April 16, 1993, the White House announced the development of an encryption chip for voice communications developed in conjunction with the National Security Agency (NSA) called the Clipper Chip, along with an initiative regarding telecommunications and privacy which could literally affect almost every citizen in the United States.
Since that time, more than three dozen of the nation's leading cryptographers, computer security specialists, and privacy experts have urged President Clinton to abandon the Clipper proposal. In a February 1994 Time/CNN poll, two-thirds of the respondents said it was more important to protect the privacy of phone calls than to preserve the ability of police to conduct wiretaps. When informed about the Clipper Chip, 80% said they opposed it.

What Are The Issues?

  • Encryption algorithms are used to "scramble" communications, making them unintelligible to anyone but the intended recipient, who holds a "key" to reveal the message. The encryption algorithm implemented in the Clipper chip is remaining classified.
    In the cryptography community, an encryption algorithm is only considered secure after it has been examined extensively and independently by a wide array of experts around the world. With an algorithm which is kept secret, there is no guarantee that it is secure and that the encryption method has no "back door" (allowing easy decryption for those, such as the National Security Agency, that know the "back door")

  • The key, which allows the information encrypted with this chip to be decrypted, is embedded in the Clipper chip.
    This means that once the key is known, the chip needs to be replaced to maintain private communications. This would usually mean replacing the entire device (e.g. telephone), anytime that the key was divulged, whether legally or not.

  • The Clipper proposal would provide government agents with copies of the keys that protect electronic communications. The 80-bit key is made from the xor of two (2) 80-bit keys, which are kept in databases at two different escrow agencies. Thus, the U.S. Government will always have the ability to read any message encrypted with the Clipper chip. It's not clear how the key databases will be kept secure. It is also unknown if the classified encryption algorithm is any less secure to brute-force attacks, once half the key is known.

  • Though the government has announced plans to use the chip in their own phones, they do not plan to use it for classified information, only for unclassified information.

  • There is no evidence to support law enforcement's claims that new technologies are hampering criminal investigations. CPSR recently forced the release of FBI documents that show no such problems.

  • This chip has been in the making for 4 years. Prior to the Clipper proposal announcement, little public comment or discussion was held on a matter which is important to the privacy of that same public. The underlying technology was developed in secret by the NSA, an intelligence agency responsible for electronic eavesdropping, not privacy protection. Congressional investigations in the 1970s disclosed widespread NSA abuses, including the illegal interception of millions of cables sent by American citizens.

  • It would seem that the Government might be granting a monopoly to Mykotronx, Inc. and VLSI Technology. VLSI will fabricate the chip and Mykotronx will program the keys into it.

  • A successor chip has already been announced, called the Capstone chip. The Capstone chip is supposed to be a "superset" of the Clipper chip and will include the "digital signature standard" (DSS), which many in the cryptography community seem to consider insecure. The NSA also developed DSS, which wasn't disclosed until CPSR filed a Freedom of Information Act request with NIST (the National Institute of Standards & Technology).

  • The Administration has continued to ignore the overwhelming opposition of the general public. When the Commerce Department solicited public comments on the proposal last fall, hundreds of people opposed the plan while only a few expressed support.

    Summary of CPSR's Position

    CPSR announced a national campaign to oppose the government's Clipper proposal. The 1987 Computer Security Act (CSA) made clear that the responsibility for technical standards for unclassified computing lies with NIST, not the super-secret NSA. The Clipper proposal subverted the NIST process of developing a "public, unclassified" encryption algorithm, undermining the central purpose of the CSA. Further, there is no legal basis to the government's claim for the ability to intercept electronic communications. CPSR opposes the secret reviews of Clipper that have been held, and supports a public debate and review of cryptography policy. Regulations and laws are needed to protect the privacy of our communications.

    CPSR's Actions

    CPSR's campaign against the Clipper proposal has four goals:

    • First, to educate the public about the implications of the Clipper proposal.

    • Second, to encourage people to express their views on the Clipper proposal, particularly through the computer network.

    • Third, to pursue litigation to force the public disclosure of documents concerning the Clipper proposal and to test the legality of the Department of Commerce's decision to endorse the plan.

    • Fourth, to examine alternative approaches to Clipper.

    What You Can Do

    1. Sign the electronic petition opposing Clipper. CPSR has already collected over 50,000 signatures on an electronic petition on the Internet computer network urging the President to withdraw the Clipper proposal. To sign on, email clipper.petition @ with the message "I oppose clipper" in the body of the text.

    2. Lobby Congress. Get Congress to lift the cryptography embargo. The administration is trying to impose Clipper on us by manipulating market forces. By purchasing massive numbers of Clipper devices, they intend to induce an economy of scale which will make them cheap while the export embargo of other encryption technologies renders all competition either expensive or nonexistent.
    We can get Congress to eliminate the export embargo of other encryption technologies. Rep. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, has a bill (H.R. 3627) before the Economic Policy, Trade, and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that would do exactly that. She will need a lot of help from the public. Please signal your support of H.R. 3627, either by writing her directly or e-mailing her at Messages sent to that address will be printed out and delivered to her office. In the subject header of your message, please include the words "support HR 3627." In the body of your message, express your reasons for supporting the bill. Write letters and make phone calls to your Member of Congress in your own district, as well as your two US Senators.

    3. Involve your local political parties. The right to privacy has a surprisingly broad appeal, spanning all parts of the political spectrum. We have many natural allies.

    4. Contribute money. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are fighting the Clipper proposal initiative. They need money for legal expenses and lobbying.

    5. Mobilize opposition in industry. Companies that will presumably develop products that will incorporate the Clipper chip should be lobbied against it, from within and from without. If you work for a telecommunications equipment vendor, first enlist the aid of your coworkers and fellow engineers against this initiative, and then present your company's management with a united front of engineering talent against this initiative. Write persuasive memos to your management, with your name and your colleagues' names on it. Hold meetings on it.

    6. Boycott Clipper devices and the companies which make them. Don't buy anything with a Clipper Chip in it. Don't buy any product from a company that manufactures devices with Big Brother inside. It is likely that the government will ask you to use Clipper for communications with the IRS or when doing business with federal agencies. They cannot, as yet, require you to do so. Just say no.

    Sources: CPSR Press Release 5/28/93; CPSR Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance 6/9/93; EFF Press Release 2/4/94; "Jackboots on the Infobahn", John Perry Barlow, Wired 2.04 Electrosphere 2/9/94; Phillip Zimmerman post to Usenet newsgroup 3/24/93; "Who Should Keep the Keys", Philip Elmer-Dewitt, TIME, 3/4/94.

  • tagged by gene chung-ngai moy, CPSR-LA

    12:22 AM PST on 11/11/96

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