Who Holds the Keys?

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In an opinion that prophetically predated the computer age, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned, "Ways may some day be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court" (Bamford 3).

For Bandeis and the rest of 1920's society, such technology would seem almost magical. However, for some time now the government and everyone else can examine papers without removing them from "secret drawers." How is this possible? It is possible because the days of secret drawers for documents and information are long gone.

Consider this scenario: A report written by a businessperson in New York must be discussed over the phone with an associate in Tokyo, examined by the company lawyers in Washington D.C., and finally submitted by e-mail to the companies vice president in San Francisco.

All of this happens in a matter of hours. In the meantime, however, elements of the report bounce off countless computer networks and satellites. As it travels down the information super highway it can easily be hijacked by anyone with the technical know-how. This report is no more secure than if it were printed on the front page of the Washington Post.

The answer to this situation is the encryption of voice and data. "Encryption is the altering of data so that it is not usable unless the changes are undone" (Williams 553). When data and voice are properly encrypted, the parties involved can be fairly certain their information will not be hijacked. That is as long as the Clinton administration doesn't get their way.

The U.S. government has acknowledged the importance of encryption to businesses, industries, and citizens. It also observes that criminal elements of society also see encryption's importance as well and could use it to evade the law. So, the Clinton administration has announced a public policy, which as Dorothy Denning explains it gives Americans the highest level of data security, but denies it to criminals. This policy lead to the development of the Clipper chip. The Clipper chip is a device that can encrypt voice and data, but contains a "back door," so that if criminals are using it, law enforcement agencies can decode the information (Levy 3).

This encryption chip would use the SKIPJACK encryption algorithm. It contains a "back door" that allows security agents the means to decipher and monitor secure messages. The National Security Agency developed the Clipper chip. The algorithms for the Clipper chip have been made classified by the N.S.A. (Electronic Privacy 1).

When activated the Clipper chip would encode the conversation or data. Only the Clipper device on the other end could decode it. If the message were intercepted it would be unintelligible (Levy 8).

The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Automated Systems Division of the Department of the Treasury hold the keys to the "back door" of the Clipper chip. Both of which are agencies of the executive branch of government. These keys were divided among the above agencies to prevent government abuse (Wired 1-2).

The Clinton administrations plan to secure the information super highway while cracking down on crime turned into an explosive controversy. With the government and select cryptographers on the side of the Clipper chip and civil rights advocates opposing it.

Those who side with the governments planed use of the Clipper chip feel its benefits clearly out way any harm it may cause. They believe that catching criminals is more important than our most basic freedoms.

Is the catching a few criminals worth giving up any freedom? Encryption is a very important way of protecting our information, but the government should not be allowed the keys to decode it. As John Perry Barlow puts it, "trusting the government with your privacy is like trusting a peeping tom to install your window blinds (Wired 2)."

Many of the arguments against the Clipper chip deal with its actual ability to catch criminals. Most experts feel its crime fighting abilities are way over rated. Since Clipper is voluntary, it is unlikely that serious criminals will even use it. Criminals can use one of any number of other encryption devices. These other types of encryption may be weaker than the Clipper chip, but the government will not hold the keys to unlocking them so easily (Wired 2).

So if this chip will not halt crime, what will it do? Stunt industry and commerce say Clipper opponents. The U.S. encryption industry has become a billion-dollar a year industry. If the Clipper chip were to become mandatory this industry would all but wither away (Vesely 2).

Consumers should be wary of an encryption algorithm that is classified. Using an undisclosed algorithm is simply poor policy for a consumer. Without intense scrutiny it is impossible to know how secure an algorithm really is. Even though one study shows it to be superior encryption device, it takes hundreds of cryptologists investigating an algorithm for serious consumers to be sure of its quality. It only makes sense for a policy such as the Clipper chip, which will effect millions of people for decades, to undergo the highest level of scrutiny now (Wired 3).

If the Clipper chip becomes mandatory you can expect to encounter it on a daily bases. It will be installed into many telecommunication devices including telephones, computers, and digital set-top boxes for interactive TV (Wired 1). And who knows what else you could expect to find it in.

Many cryptologists have stated that allowing the government the right to hold the keys to encryption is a serious infringement upon Americans' right to privacy. It would not be much different than being forced to deposit the keys to our homes with the government.

Works Cited

Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace: A Report on Americas Most Secret Agency.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1982.

"The Clipper Chip." Electronic Privacy Information Center. 2 pg.


"Electronic Privacy: A Call to Action." Wired. 3 pg.


Levy, Steven. "Clipper Chic." Wired. 12 pg.


Vesely, Rebecca. "U.S. Crypto Policy." Wired. March 31, 1997. 2 pg.


Williams, Brian K. ,et al. Using Information Technology. 2nd ed. Chicago: Times Mirror Higher Education Group. 1997.