Time to admit: Clipper chip whipped


April 13, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

It's hard for a government to admit that one of its pet ideas just isn't going to fly.

It's especially hard when that idea is being pushed by top law enforcement and national security officials who are convinced it is the only way to prevent gangs of drug-pushing pedophile terrorists from taking over the streets.

But the Clipper chip, the Clinton administration's solution to the oft-cited but little-seen problem of evildoers thwarting legal wiretaps with high-tech encryption programs, appears to be dead. Yes, it's still sitting upright, but only because a phalanx of embarrassed-looking White House aides are propping it up like the comic corpse in "Weekend at Bernie's."

Who killed Clipper? There are plenty of suspects.

There are the privacy advocates and civil libertarians who have been flooding the news media with often exaggerated warnings that Clipper is the greatest threat to freedom since the McCarthy era.

There are the right-wing talk show hosts who fear that Clipper will be to Big Government what spinach is to Popeye.

There are the high-tech executives and software writers who resent having an industry standard crammed down their throat.

All were in on the plot, certainly, but the one holding the bloody knife is old Adam Smith himself, patron saint of the Marketplace. Once everyone acknowledges it is brain dead, Clipper will be taken off life support because there will be no demand for it.

The problem with Clipper is that too many people hate it -- from American Civil Liberties Union members to Rush Limbaugh to the engineers. Nobody's going to want it in their technology. It's like bovine growth hormone in milk -- the biggest selling point for the product will be its absence.

Fundamentally, what bothers people about Clipper is that it's un-American. It's one thing to allow that the government has the right to get a warrant and search your house. It's another to accept that you can only install a lock if you give the government a key.

The government swears that it's not going to force people to use Clipper, that it will be the standard for government communications but that for private industry it will be totally voluntary.

Fat chance.

The problem is, Clipper only works if it's mandatory. Is there any wonder its foes suspect they're being hit with a one-two punch: First get the country to swallow Clipper, then wait for a crisis and get Congress to outlaw non-Clipper encryption.

In an interview last month, vice presidential aide Greg Simon articulated the bottom line of U.S. policy on Clipper.

"If people have a better idea, we're open to it," Mr. Simon said. "The idea of just doing nothing is not practicable."

OK, here goes:

* Accept the fact that private individuals will write and distribute strong crypto programs, whatever the government says.

* Remove all export restrictions and let less secure governments suppress private cryptography.

* Open the country's doors to cryptographers from around the world. Give them freedom. Recruit them. Put them to work breaking each other's codes. Make them Americans. Then the government can rest assured that it has the best code makers and breakers on the planet on its team. If it needs help, it won't have to coerce. All it will have to do is ask.

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