Electronic privacy eyed in new technology

April 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Clinton administration is about to announce a plan to preserve privacy in electronic communications, including telephone calls and electronic mail, while also ensuring the government's right to eavesdrop for law enforcement and national security reasons.

New technology will be installed in some government communications networks within weeks or months and could be available for business and even household use before the end of the year. It will use a new system of encoding voice and computer transmissions to prevent unauthorized listening.

The move is intended to resolve a long-standing dilemma of the information age: how to preserve the legitimate right for businesses and citizens to use codes to protect all sorts of digital communications -- be it a doctor's cellular phone call to a patient or a company's electronic transfer of a million dollars to an overseas client -- without letting criminals and terrorists conspire beyond the reach of the law.

"There is a trade-off between individual privacy and society's safety from crime," a government official familiar with the plan said. "Our society needs to decide where to draw the line."

But at least some communications experts, when told of the plan, did not like what they heard.

"I think the government is creating a monster," said a former Pentagon official, Stephen D. Bryen, who is president of Secured Communications Technologies Inc. in Silver Spring, Md., which makes data-security equipment. "People won't be able to trust these devices because there is a high risk that the government is going to have complete access to anything they are going to do."

Computer chips and special software make it possible now to code phone conversations and computer data, effectively garbling them so they cannot be deciphered by even the National Security Agency's most powerful code-breaking computers.

Although computer encoding is now used in only a small amount of electronic communications, computer experts expect that volume to grow rapidly as more of the nation's commerce begins to flow over data networks -- especially wireless networks that are particularly subject to eavesdropping unless the information is coded.

The government has proposed in the past to require the use of a hidden key in the coding hardware or software -- a way to crack the code, in other words -- to let police security agents decipher ++ messages after obtaining court authorization to do so. Civil liberty concerns aside, computer experts have argued that any such key, no matter how sophisticated, might be figured out by any savvy computer hacker.

The administration's solution: require two separate keys, one to be held by a federal agency and the other to be held by a separate party. Only after obtaining a court's authorization, and obtaining both keys, could the FBI or other law-enforcement agency break the code.

The new coding devices, which will be called Clipper Chips, have been designed by engineers at the National Institute for Standards and Technology and at the National Security Agency.

They will be manufactured by Mycotronx, a military contractor in Torrance, Calif., and VLSI Technology Inc., a Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer. Each device, which would be built into government telephones and eventually into commercial telephones and computers.

The new security plan has been a classified secret by several government agencies, including the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the NSA, and several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. The official said the government planned to announce the technology, possibly within a week, and to propose it as a government-wide standard later this year.

A White House official said yesterday that President Clinton had signed an order establishing a broad review of government cryptography policies, assigning responsibility to the National Security Council.

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