Clipper Chip Again Again

We now know that the Bush administration is scanning every conversation and e-mail with computers, looking for interesting information, and doing this without warrants or any other kind of legal authorization. (Note – The Bush people say they are only scanning communications into and out of the country, and say they are only looking for “terrorists.”) So I have been looking back at President Clinton’s controversial “Clipper Chip” proposal. This was a standardized chip that would go into computers and phones and would encrypt (securely code) every message and call made by anyone in the US, so no one could eavesdrop.
Opponents said the Clipper Chip would have led to the government monitoring our communications. I say it would have prevented what is happening now, and that is why the Right mounted a campaign of disinformation to kill it.

In the comments to Clipper Chip Again, Alice (of the great blog GOTV) wrote,

Essentially the clipper chip would have given the NSA a back door into every computer in the US. For that reason alone it would have killed our computer industry. It also would have been the defacto end of the fourth amendment.

And later

Under Clinton’s proposal the legal requirements for wiretap would have been untouched. However, the idea that you would put something like that in place and future governments would respect it is laughable. Besides, who is going to buy IT equipment from the US if it is known that it all comes with a NSA compatible clipper chip? The end of any exports we might have.

I think this reflects a very high level of disinformation that was spread about this initiative. (Disinformation spread by Republicans! Imagine that!) (Update – I certainly don’t mean Alice, I mean what she wrote reflects what people were led to believe.)
Today, no one needs a “back door” of any kind to monitor our e-mails or phone calls because no phones or computers have encryption built in. Anyone can currently listen in on any voice or email communications in. Not just our government — anyone. That is WHY Bush is able to scan every email and phone communication. Again, computer and phone communications are wide open NOW because there is no encryption whatsoever. Once more, just to make it clear, with the system we have in place now ANYONE can tap into ANY conversation without requiring any “back door.” And currently there are non-American business and intelligence interests doing just that.
The Clipper Chip was a device that would be built into every computer and phone. It would have SECURED all voice and email communications by encrypting them before they went out over the wires. It would have made EVERY voice and e-mail communication impossible to tap. The reason this is needed is because non-American business and intelligence interests ARE listening in.
But this high level of security on every single call and email would have prevented law enforcement from being able to listen in, even with a warrant. And we want law enforcement to be able to eavesdrop on bad guys, like terrorists – and corrupt guys like Abramoff – as long as they get warrants first. So Clinton proposed a complicated system for placing the “keys” to unlock the messages that each chip encoded in escrow, for use when a warrant is obtained. The system was complicated because there were several steps involved in keeping anyone from getting any chip’s key without a warrant. However there would have been nothing to prevent people from encrypting messages themelves before it went through the Clipper Chip, so even with the keys the government would not be able to eavesdrop on those communications any more than they can eavesdrop now on encrypted messages.
But there is another thing about this idea of people being able to do their own encrypting of messages before they went out through the Clipper Chip. Currently anyone using encryption stands out just because they are using encryption when no one else is. This actually makes them targets of surveillance because encrypted messages stand out in the flow of voice and e-mail. Of course, spy agencies want to look at those encrypted messages in particular to see why the senders think they need to keep others from listening in. So these messages are singled out and sent to powerful computers for analysis. But WITH the Clipper chip there would be no way for interested parties to know who was adding their own encryption, so they would not know who to focus in on.
I found a good summary of the Clipper Chip initiative at this web page. It summarized the arguments against the initiative as follows: (Keep in mind as you read them that without such a device NO communications are secure and anyone can tap in.)

Privacy and Security Concerns

  • Failed to protect privacy rights of individuals. Placing sensitive private keys in the hands of the government violated the privacy of individuals. Moreover, procedures to obtain keys raised concerns. To obtain access to a key, the law enforcement official would have had to obtain a warrant to perform a wiretap. However, they were permitted to fax a request to the key escrow agents merely claiming to have a warrant, without having to present actual documentation of the wiretapping order. Furthermore, there were no requirements for the destruction of the key after wiretapping was completed. Obtaining the key would have allowed those law enforcement officials to access all conversations for as long as that particular phone was operational.
  • Created risky key escrow system. The Clipper Chip initiative proposed placing all keys for all encrypted communications into the hands of only two or three agencies. This scenerio provided an opportunity for corruption and abuse of power.
  • Used potentially insecure algorithm. The encoding algorithm, known as “Skipjack”, was developed in secret by the National Security Agency (NSA). Cryptographic experts viewed the secrecy surrounding Skipjack with skepticism, because algorithms are usually submitted for peer review to identify weaknesses. On June 24, 1998, the NSA finally declassified Skipjack.
  • Violated principles behind Computer Security Act of 1987. Congress passed the Computer Security Act in 1987, limiting the role of the NSA in developing standards for civilian communications. Despite this law, the NSA was still integrally involved in developing the Clipper Chip, a civilian communications device.
  • So here we are. Opponents said that the Clipper initiative would have led to the government listening in on our communications. And now the government IS listening in on our communications. So I guess it is all Clinton’s fault again.
    But what gets me about this is that it is the people who blocked the Clipper Chip who are now listening in on our calls and e-mails. And they can do it because there is no Clipper Chip. In 1997 then-Senator John Ashcroft said of Clipper,

    “The Clinton administration would like the Federal government to have the capability to read any international or domestic computer communications. The FBI wants access to decode, digest, and discuss financial transactions, personal e-mail, and proprietary information sent abroad — all in the name of national security. To accomplish this, President Clinton would like government agencies to have the keys for decoding all exported U.S. software and Internet communications.”

    Read his whole speech and keep in mind as you read it that that the communications he is talking about were and are NOT encrypted, so there is nothing to decode. And also remember that Ashcroft was Bush’s Attorney General when Bush started the government listening in on our calls and e-mails, which they could do BECAUSE there is no Clipper Chip. Ashcroft was accusing Clinton of proposing the opposite of what Clinton was proposing, and of what Ashcroft himself DID do once in office.
    A note about the keys – EVERY encryption system uses keys. So the question is, where do you want to get your encryption system from? A major corporation? The Japanese or Chinese? Or a system the government guarantees no one can listen to without a warrant?
    Update – I’ve been digging around for who led the opposition to Clipper. Ashcroft was the leader in the Congress. Here’s a transcript from a show on Clipper on Pat Robertson Christian Coalition’s 700 Club, (keep in mind while reading this, the chip would have encrypted every comunication, while phones and computers as they were and are are completely open to anyone listening in)

    …And if you’re a big fan of large government, this tiny computer chip could now give the government, Big Brother, instant access to every detail of your private life.
    [. . .] Privacy advocates like Jerry Berman point out the government has been known to spy on citizens when it believes they hold dangerous political opinions.

    From the Libertarian Reason Online,

    …In February, the administration officially adopted “Clipper Chip” technology that will make it possible for government agencies to read all coded telephone and computer communications.
    … Although the administration maintains that any back-door access offered by the Clipper Chip will require a court order and the use of two digital keys kept by separate, still-to-be-determined federal agencies, past governmental abuses of less-sophisticated surveillance techniques undercut any guarantees of privacy.
    … Even if the NSA’s role is not contrary to the letter of the law, it remains profoundly unsettling to see the Clinton administration embrace a technology as insidious as it is highly classified. One of the great achievements of the United States has been an unparalleled freedom of expression, not just between citizens and government but among private individuals. The Clipper Chip, with its potential for unlimited and undetectable eavesdropping, threatens the free flow of information that is the precondition of all democratic societies. Who can talk freely–or conduct business–with a third party listening in?
    Once citizens cannot talk openly among themselves, they cannot speak openly in public, either. As George Orwell pointed out in 1984, the mere possibility of extensive governmental surveillance curtails individual liberty: “They could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”


    The Clipper chip contained advanced “key recovery” surveillance technology, allowing the government to secretly tap phone conversations and monitor computer communications.

    NewsMax again,

    Al Gore wanted to be Big Brother. In 1993, Vice President Al Gore spearheaded a project called “Clipper” which was designed to monitor America. Gore’s leadership in this scheme to allow the Feds to have easy access to bug American telephones is all too well documented for him to deny.

    Lots of stuff like this,

    In 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno tasked Mr. Hubbell to encryption under the CLIPPER encryption chip project. Hubbell had access to highly classified materials on encryption chip design, including algorithms and software. Hubbell met often in the White House with now CIA Director George Tenet on the CLIPPER project.
    According to a Republican Capitol Hill staff member the “NSA does not want Hubbell investigated.” The NSA has quietly threatened to “out any congressional member like (Congressman) Burton” who mentions Hubbell with encryption and China.
    … NASA administrator Benita Cooper wrote in 1993 that “compromise of the NSA keys, such as in the Walker case, could compromise the entire EES (CLIPPER) system.” Ms. Cooper at NASA knew convicted spy John Walker sent tons of materials on U.S. secret code systems to Russia for years during the Cold War. One breach of CLIPPER in a NASA computer could kill many and ruin the agency.
    In 1994 President Clinton began personally authorizing the export of advanced, nuclear hardened, encryption technology directly to communist China.

    7 thoughts on “Clipper Chip Again Again

    1. All I can say is that I am going to have to take a second look at this.
      You are perfectly correct, almost no communication is encrypted, and that which is sticks out like a sour thumb.

    2. Alice Marshall writes: …almost no communication is encrypted, and that which is sticks out like a sour [sic] thumb.
      I think this is a myth. There is a lot more encrypted communication going on than most people really think about. It does not stick out like a sore thumb. There is nothing but apathy and ignorance stopping people from routinely encrypting their private communications.

    3. The Clipper chip was designed to let the NSA listen in.

      The current scandal is about the NSA illegally directed to listen in.

      If the Clipper chip was widespread, it would have in NO POSSIBLE WAY prevented the illegal wiretapping, because it would have been the very agency entrusted with the keys that was doing it.

      A note about the keys – EVERY encryption system uses keys. So the question is, where do you want to get your encryption system from? A major corporation? The Japanese or Chinese? Or a system the government guarantees no one can listen to without a warrant?

      Fallacy of the excluded middle.
      The other choice is a peer-reviewed open algorithm without “key recovery” built in.
      Remember, this whole current scandal is about the government violating the law and listening without a warrant. You seem to feel the Clinton government was good for its word, but do you also think the Bush administration is?

    4. “The Clipper chip was designed to let the NSA listen in.”
      We have have wide-open computers and phones that ANYONE CAN LISTEN IN ON AT ANY TIME. You don’t need to design a chip that lets you listen in. YOU ALREADY CAN LISTEN IN. DUH! Please, think. Don’t just come here and repeat right-wing statements. Think through the logic of what you say.
      The Clipper Chip was an encryption chip. That meant it would take the currently unsecured voice and e-mails and hide them so people CAN’T listen in. Again – anyone could already listen in to any call or e-mail BECAUSE there is no encryption built-in.
      If the Clinton Administration wanted to listen in why wouldn’t they have JUST DONE IT? (Which is what Bush is doing.) Why would they ask us to install a chip that blocks people from listening in?
      What was it about the right-wing campaign to discredit Clinton that so effectively messed up people’s thinking? It is just so simple – anyone already CAN listen in. If Clinton had wanted to listen in, he would have just listened in, as Bush IS doing. Sheesh.

    5. This article is wrong.
      The Clipper chip was not going to be built into every computer made. It would have been the NIST approved standard which replaced the Digital Encryption Standard (DES). Being a NIST approved standard, it would have been mandatory for Federal government use, probably for Secret communications and below, but certainly for sensitive but unclassified. It would have been optional for civilian use, but other algorithms would have been disallowed.
      We killed the idea, we being Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, crypto geeks, and lots of other folks who were afraid of government snooping and possibly mandated use of bad crypto. Instead, the new algorithm that was adopted by NIST is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES.) It has no backdoors, and no government mandated key escrow.
      Anyone in the US can use it for free.
      So, the particulars that are logically wrong:
      1) The clipper chip was not going to mean that “all” communications were encrypted, because it would have been optional, at extra cost. That means there is no reason to believe that more people would be using crypto than do so now, and so any encrypted traffic would stand out just as much as it does now. This red flags signals analysts to look deeper…as the article mentions, but either way this would happen. This is a wash.
      2) Today, any US Citizen can use strong crypto. Since the FBI/local police can’t decrypt it without a warrant to seize your computer to get the keys, you would at least know if you are under surveillance in most cases. Advantage: the current system.
      3) We don’t know if the NSA can decrypt strong commercial crypto today. To be on the safe side, assume they can. Under clipper, they could as well. Advantage: a wash
      4) We don’t know if Clipper had defects, but it did have a relatively weak key, at 80 bits. AES with 128, 256 or longer key lengths is available and in use. This provides stronger encryption than we would have had under clipper, so our communications is safer from industrial spies if we choose to use the tools that are available. Advantage: non-clipper
      Anyone that is concerned about secure email communications should use PGP, OpenPGP or S/MIME. The cost for the software ranges from free up to about $50 USD. Rather than bemoan the fact that we didn’t all adopt Clipper and volunteer for the surveillance society, why not be proactive and write your representatives in Congress about the admitted abuse of surveillance by this administration?

    6. Dave, the anti-Clipper point isn’t that the gov’t could listen in without encryption, and couldn’t with Clipper.
      The point is that that they _could_ do so with Clipper.
      Please, I beg of you, read some EFF or Schneier on this topic.

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