NSA chief says code-breaker will enhance privacy

May 04, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The director of the secretive National Security Agency stepped out of the shadows yesterday to assure Congress that Americans' privacy is "enhanced, not degraded" by the Clinton administration's effort to introduce a code-breaking computer chip into American telephones.

In a rare public appearance before a congressional hearing, Vice Adm. J. M. McConnell told senators that the embattled initiative known as the Clipper chip strikes the proper balance between privacy and the government's need to decipher what it intercepts in legal wiretaps.

"It improves the privacy of Americans over where it is today," the admiral said.

He contended that Clipper -- which he described as 16 million times more powerful than the current encryption standard -- would protect Americans from insurance companies, credit agencies and rogue cops who might want to spy on them. Federal agents, however, would be able to conduct authorized monitoring.

Privacy advocates and computer industry representatives, who squared off with law enforcement and national security officials in hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill yesterday, say thanks but no thanks. Criticizing the initiative as an infringement on liberties and a crushing burden on U.S. high-technology exports, they urged Congress to intervene -- either by legislation or by cutting off the appropriations that support the program.

Clipper opponents appeared to have made inroads with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Technology and the Law Subcommittee.

"Why would I buy something with a Clipper chip in it that comes with a sign that says the federal government has the keys to it?" the Vermont Democrat asked Jo Ann Harris, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division.

Ms. Harris contended that the Clipper chip would be widely adopted in the industry because it would be far superior to any other encryption program on the market.

Mr. Leahy, who noted pointedly that he also sits on the Appropriations Committee, also expressed concern that adopting the Clipper standard would cause the U.S. telecommunications industry to lose export sales because foreign customers wouldn't want to buy equipment with the Clipper chip.

That worry was echoed by several witnesses, including Stephen T. Walker, president of Trusted Information Systems Inc. in Glenwood, Montgomery County. He noted that while the government intends to allow export of Clipper-based encryption technologies, it continues to forbid the export of other strong cryptographic programs.

As a result, he said, U.S. companies are losing sales of encrypted software both here and overseas. He cited a study by the Software Publishers Association that found 155 foreign-produced hardware or software products on the market that use the current U.S. encryption standard known as DES, which falls under export restrictions.

"You can call a German firm from an 800 number and have it on your desk the next day, but you can't ship it back," Mr. Walker said.

The Clipper chip is what is known as a "key escrow" standard, in which the mathematical formula to decode encrypted messages held in trust by the government. Under the Clipper proposal, the formula for decrypting an encoded message would be divided into two parts to prevent the use of the formula without court authorization.

Under the administration's plan, one part of the key would be held in escrow by the Treasury Department; the other would be held by the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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