High-tech advocates leery of Clipper

March 25, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHICAGO -- For White House aide David Lytel, the good news yesterday was that high-technology advocates gathered here did not throw him into Lake Michigan.

That's about the only way Mr. Lytel's efforts to defend a controversial Clinton administration proposal to preserve the government's ability to wiretap in the Digital Age could have received a chillier reception from participants at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference.

The hostile reaction to the data encryption scheme known as Clipper illustrates how deep a wedge has been driven between the Clinton administration and the high-tech constituency it has wooed so ardently.

Clipper is the name of the computer chip at the heart of the government's plan to promulgate a new standard for scrambling electronic transmissions of voice and data. The plan comes at a time when secure, private communications have become a critical concern for government, industry and individuals.

The sore spot is that the government wants an encryption standard that would still allow it to snoop.

Such agencies as the FBI and National Security Agency are concerned that modern encryption technologies are so sophisticated that the government will no longer be able to understand messages it intercepts under legal search warrants. The agencies have raised the specter of computer-savvy international crooks and terrorists hatching their plots under the helpless noses of the law frustrated "good guys."

The problem yesterday for Mr. Lytel, who pointedly noted that the Clinton White House inherited the Clipper scheme from the Bush administration, was that many high-tech devotees don't necessarily think of government as a good guy.

Trying to make the point that Clipper would protect the very computer systems the conference participants depend on, Mr. Lytel posed a question: "How many people here believe themselves to be more at risk from abuse of federal power than from criminal activity?"

About 80 percent of the hands went up as a voiced called out: "How do you tell the difference?"

Mr. Lytel, a midlevel political appointee in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, was a last-minute replacement for presidential assistant John Podesta.

The designated flak-catcher characterized the Clipper standard as entirely voluntary, but that argument was met by deep skepticism from technology advocates. Clipper opponents noted the government forbids the export of encryption software without its approval and thus could deny any non-Clipper program access to the global market.

Opponents also doubted whether a voluntary Clipper standard would remain voluntary for long.

"It'll only work if it's mandatory, because no criminal in his right mind is going out to Radio Shack to buy encryption technology made by the NSA," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Requiring the use of a government-approved encryption program would raise serious

First Amendment issues, he said.

Clipper opponents also argued that the government's data encryption would be ineffective at stopping the kind of sophisticated computer criminal the FBI and NSA have warned about.

"How come the administration can't come up with any examples of criminals who are smart enough to encrypt in the first place but dumb enough to use the government's chip?" San Francisco lawyer Chuck Morrison asked Mr. Lytel.

The confrontation yesterday brought to a head a revolt that has been brewing for months. Clipper has inspired extravagant fears and heated rhetoric about "Big Brother" among high-tech advocates, many of them libertarians who oppose the idea of any wiretaps.

Ironically, on most technology-related issues, the administration has received high marks from the denizens of cyberspace.

Where the Bush administration was perceived as technologically backward, the Clinton White House is seen as informed on technology issues. Vice President Al Gore, in particular, is seen as an advocate for high-technology causes.

For its part, the administration has courted this group -- hardly ever missing a chance to flaunt its enthusiasm for computers and advanced communications technology. And it's a constituency well worth wooing.

Its numbers might be relatively small, but its wallets are thick and its support polishes the administration's "new Democrat" image as a friend of business.

The Clipper controversy has forced the administration to make an uncomfortable choice, however. It could scuttle Clipper and buck the law enforcement and national security establishment, or it could continue efforts to maintain wiretap capability and alienate its high-tech friends.

When the administration backed the NSA and the FBI, the reaction from high-technology advocates was a virtual howl of betrayal.

Mr. Berman said yesterday that the administration is deeply divided by the Clipper proposal and that opponents are talking with sympathetic members of government about new approaches.

In a meeting with the press after being roasted by conference-goers, Mr. Lytel indicated that the administration would rather talk than fight.

"People have to have confidence, or regardless of what the technology facilitates, it isn't going to work," he said. "We are listening. We will continue to listen."

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