As FBI Director James Comey threatens to go to Congress to have back doors built into virtually all technology, it is probably a good time to remember that we have been down this road before.
In 1994, during the Clinton Administration, a huge battle was waged. On one side was the federal government, which sought to require that technology devices have a back door built in. The back door was created in a computer chip called the Clipper chip. On the other side of the battle were private citizens, well schooled in the risks that such back doors raise. Ultimately, the Clipper chip was not approved.
The New York Times, in an article from June, 1994, laid out the crux of the fight then underway:
The Clipper chip has prompted what might be considered the first holy war of the information highway. Two weeks ago, the war got bloodier, as a researcher circulated a report that the chip might have a serious technical flaw. But at its heart, the issue is political, not technical. The Cypherpunks consider the Clipper the lever that Big Brother is using to pry into the conversations, messages and transactions of the computer age. These high-tech Paul Reveres are trying to mobilize America against the evil portent of a “cyberspace police state,” as one of their Internet jeremiads put it. Joining them in the battle is a formidable force, including almost all of the communications and computer industries, many members of Congress and political columnists of all stripes. The anti-Clipper aggregation is an equal-opportunity club, uniting the American Civil Liberties Union and Rush Limbaugh.
The Clipper’s defenders, who are largely in the Government, believe it represents the last chance to protect personal safety and national security against a developing information anarchy that fosters criminals, terrorists and foreign foes. Its adherents pose it as the answer, or at least part of the answer, to a problem created by an increasingly sophisticated application of an age-old technology: cryptography, the use of secret codes.
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The idea is to give the Government means to override other people’s codes, according to a concept called “key escrow.” Employing normal cryptography, two parties can communicate in total privacy, with both of them using a digital “key” to encrypt and decipher the conversation or message. A potential eavesdropper has no key and therefore cannot understand the conversation or read the data transmission. But with Clipper, an additional key — created at the time the equipment is manufactured — is held by the Government in escrow. With a court-approved wiretap, an agency like the F.B.I. could listen in. By adding Clipper chips to telephones, we could have a system that assures communications will be private — from everybody but the Government.
And that’s what rankles Clipper’s many critics. Why, they ask, should people accused of no crime have to give Government the keys to their private communications? Why shouldn’t the market rather than Government determine what sort of cryptosystem wins favor. And isn’t it true that the use of key escrow will make our technology so unattractive to the international marketplace that the United States will lose its edge in the lucrative telecommunications and computer fields? Clipper might clip the entire economy.
The article is worth a full read, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the history. It shows that time and again, the government seeks to collect digital information without regard to the adverse consequences to privacy and human dignity. The government’s arguments in favor of the Clipper chip back door are virtually word-for-word consistent with the claims from James Comey:
When illustrating the Government’s need to control crypto, Jim Kallstrom, the agent in charge of the special operations division of the New York office of the F.B.I., quickly shifts the discussion to the personal: “Are you married? Do you have a child? O.K., someone kidnaps one of your kids and they are holding your kid in this fortress up in the Bronx. Now, we have probable cause that your child is inside this fortress. We have a search warrant. But for some reason, we cannot get in there. They made it out of some new metal, or something, right? Nothing’ll cut it, right? And there are guys in there, laughing at us. That’s what the basis of this issue really is — we’ve got a situation now where a technology has become so sophisticated that the whole notion of a legal process is at stake here!”