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The Clipper Chip:  Fear, Freedom, & the Singapore Question

You may distribute the text of this article freely, but I would
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                                              Tom Maddox
                                              [email protected]


Reports from the Electronic Frontier:
The Clipper Chip; Fear, Freedom, & the Singapore Question

Tom Maddox <[email protected]>

        Skipjack, Clipper, and Capstone--such a nice
set of names:  nautical, cheerful, evocative. 
However they don't tell much, and what they do tell
is misleading--it seems the spin doctors have been
operating yet again, those malign beings who rename
and reconstrue parts of reality when we're not

        In actuality, Skipjack is an encryption
algorithm (a method for encoding information),
Clipper a chip for implementing Skipjack in
telephones (performing the act of encoding and
decoding the voice in real time), and Capstone yet
another chip for doing the same thing while adding
several bells and whistles--to maintain the
nautical motif--which seem to include encrypting
data as well as voice. 

        In total, what they amount to, disguised by
the cheerful spin, is a major governmental
initiative, put forward by the White House, and
supported strongly by the National Security Agency,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the
Central Intelligence Agency, to reshape the nature
of voice and data communications into the 21st
century in the name of social control and better
law enforcement.

        The Kennedy Administration, liberal and
enlightened, got us stuck in the Cold War horrors
of Vietnam; now the Clinton Administration,
similarly liberal and enlightened--also technically
hip and committed to information technology--
presents us with Clipper.  As Kennedy & Co. fought
the spread of demonic communism, Clinton & Co.
fight crime presumed to be equally diabolical: 
pedophiles, terrorists, drug dealers are among
those cited by defenders of Clipper.  (What about
actual Satanists, or, for instance, cannibals,
slavers, and evil aliens from the Planet Zortron? 
I haven't heard any of them mentioned, but perhaps
I haven't caught the right briefing.)

        How does this package of software and hardware
work that is claimed to be so important to
protecting us all from unspeakable horrors, or at
least to preserving public order?   As I say above,
Skipjack is an encryption algorithm, a method for
encrypting data; it is implemented in Clipper and
Capstone, two chips that will be inserted in
telephones and computers so that if you have such a
chip installed and communicate with a device that
also has one, your exchange of voice or data will
be "scrambled," encoded so as to be unintelligible
to anyone who listens in or intercepts your data-

        Anyone but the right government agencies with
the right court order, that is.  And that is the
problem.  Given the proper warrants, the FBI, for
example, can unlock the encryption, "unscramble"
the voice- or data-stream, They would do so using
"escrow keys" they or any other Federal law
enforcement agency could acquire from the key-
holders (currently the Feds propose that the
Department of the Treasury and the National
Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST,
would hold the keys, which are split into two
parts).  In short, Clipper-style encryption would
secure its users' privacy from everyone except the
Federal government.  

        The White House first proposed Clipper in
April, 1993, and the response from organizations
such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
and a number of corporations was immediate and
almost uniformly negative.  Seeing Big Brother
embodied in the hardware, they balked, but so did a
number of generally conservative corporate types. 
In fact, from cryptographic experts to common
citizens, people do not much like Clipper.  

        So the question arises, why does the White
House want Clipper's capabilities so badly that it
is willing to forfeit a great deal of goodwill
built up among its natural constituencies in the
infotech communities? 

        The answer might come from two directions.  On
the one hand, "tough on crime" is perceived by
politicians as the safest political position this
election year, never mind the details, and the
Clinton folks have done all they can to stake a
claim to this position.  As has been remarked ad
nauseam in the media, they do not want look soft on
crime.  They are selling Clipper as being tough on

        On the other, the NSA (the super-secret
"puzzle palace" with headquarters in Building A at
Fort Mead, Maryland, for those who haven't paid
much attention to this sort of thing), the FBI, and
the CIA have convinced the White House that
unspeakable horrors will come to pass if their
current ability to tap phones becomes impaired or
even disappears due to the spread of digital
telephone equipment and cheap and easy encryption--
both of which are spreading rapidly.

        For instance, FBI Director Louis Freeh,
speaking to the Executives' Club of Chicago last
year, gave the following scare quotes concerning a
world without Clipper:  

The country will be unable to protect itself
against terrorism, violent crime, foreign
threats, drug trafficking, espionage,
kidnapping and other grave crimes.

Advanced technology will make it impossible
for the FBI to carry out court-approved
surveillance in life-and-death cases.

And James K. Kallstrom, the FBI's chief of
investigative technology, has a more gothic
imagination; he says, "I don't have a lot of dead
bodies laying [sic] around here or dead children
from an airplane explosion that we haven't been
able to solve--yet."

        For lack of Clipper, various law enforcement
folks assure us, the Feelthy Drug Lords of Medellin
could laughingly twirl their greasy moustaches as
they further their hideous conspiracies in safety;
likewise, various conspiracies of fanatic Arabs;
likewise, pedophiles everywhere  A terrible picture
emerges:  drug-suckers everywhere, in a landscape
of falling airplanes and exploding skyscrapers, and
as to the children--well, the scenes are too
horrible to contemplate:  all for want of Clipper.

        Worse yet, as we're assured by Dorothy
Denning, professor at Georgetown University and
almost sole designated defender of Clipper, things
could happen which we, the citizenry, cannot and
should not know:

[I]t is not possible for most of us to be
fully informed of the national security
implications of uncontrolled encryption.  For
very legitimate reasons, these cannot be fully
discussed and debated in a public forum.  It
is even difficult to talk about the full
implications of encryption on law enforcement. 
This is why it is so important that the
President and Vice-President be fully informed
on all the issues, and for the decisions to be
made at that level.

In short, Clinton and Gore must know the whole
horrible truth about a Clipperless world, and the
rest of us must simply let them decide what is to
be done.  

        Such arguments, while perhaps compelling to
some--certainly to monarchists, for instance--do
not seem appropriate to the United States. 

        Here we put up with the routine slaughter of
thousands of our citizens in the name of the right
to bear arms, with disgusting pornography and with
neo-Nazis and political goofballs of every possible
persuasion in the name of the right to free speech;
where we grant tax breaks to people and
organizations espousing the most lunatic religious
beliefs.  In short, in the United States we
manifest what many in other countries regard as an
unreasonable attachment to individual liberties and
individual privacy. 

        Clipper challenges that attachment once again.
Underneath the technical detail lies what I have
come to think of as the "Singapore question." 
Singapore has become quite famous lately for the
relentlessly draconian nature of its laws and
punishments and for what is presumed to be
consequent orderliness of behavior there.  Some
Americans deplore this kind of authoritarian
culture (for instance, see William Gibson's
article, "Disneyland with the Death Penalty," in
the September/October, 1993 issue of Wired), while
others look longingly at a society virtually free
of the kinds of routine semi-barbarism that often
characterize life in American cities:  littering,
graffiti, generalized vandalism, muggings, robbery,
theft, and so on. So they ask, as do many citizens
of Singapore, how the people of the United States
can presume to condemn practices in Singapore when
the fruits of liberty in this country have become
so noxious, perhaps even poisonous.  So the
Singapore Question is, how much chaos are you
willing to endure in the name of liberty? or how
much liberty are you willing to forfeit in order to
secure a more orderly society?

        In this context, certain largely theoretical
forfeitures of liberty seem less threatening than
they might during times when most citizens feel
safe, secure, and, as Americans have been wont to
feel, privileged.  After all, whatever our abstract
principles, if we do not engage in the large-scale
transport of cocaine, the bombing of public places,
or the sexual abuse of children, what have we to
fear?  Is the FBI, NSA or CIA really likely to get
a court order to listen to our privacies?  

        Furthermore, with Clipper we can protect our
communications from all other eavesdroppers, both
casual and determined (such as practitioners of
corporate espionage).  Almost inarguably Clipper
would give us more privacy of communication in day-
to-day life than we now possess--after all, many of
our cordless phones can be listened to with the
simplest scanning device, and most of our phone
lines will yield their secrets to anyone equipped
with alligator clips and a headset.

        But unfortunately for the Clinton
Administration's desire to play on public fear of
drug dealers, pedophiles, and terrorists, hardly
anyone other than the above-named government
agencies and Dorothy Denning buys into this
argument.  Time Magazine published the results of a
recent survey which showed that 80% of those told
about Clipper opposed it.

        Unfortunately for civil libertarians, however,
Clipper nonetheless will not go away.  After
backing off a few steps, the Clinton White House
reaffirmed its committment to instituting Clipper.  

        However, Congress has planned hearings on the
matter, which should be taking place around the
time you are reading this column.  Senator Patrick
Leahy (D-VT) of the Senate Judiciary's Technology
and the Law Subcommittee will chair hearings
beginning May 3, 1994, 9:30 a.m., Hart Building,
Room 216; contact 202-224-3406 for more
information.  Also, the House Science, Space and
Technology Subcomittee on Technology, Environment
and Aviation will be holding a hearing concerning
both Clipper and the FBI "Digital Telephony"
proposal; it will be chaired by Rep. Tim Valentine
(D-NC) and is scheduled for May 3, 1994, 1 p.m.,
Rayburn Building, Room 2318.

        Mike Godwin, legal advisor to EFF, lately
remarked in an article in Internet World, April,
1994 (I recommend the entire article), 

[L]imits on government power entail a loss in
efficiency of law-enforcement investigations
and intelligence-agency operations. 
Nevertheless, there is a fundamental choice we
have to make about what kind of society we
want to live in.  Open societies, and
societies that allow individual privacy, are
less safe.  But we have been taught to value
liberty more highly than safety, and I think
that's a lesson well-learned.

Thus, along with Godwin and other civil
libertarians, my answer to the Singapore Question
insofar as it concerns Clipper is simple:  citizens
should have the right to encrypt our communications
in a manner that would not allow any government
agency, no matter how well-intentioned, to decipher
them; hence, no Clipper.  As they say on the net,
your mileage may vary.  While I have made my own
position clear in this column, I do not presume
that it is yours.  

        Whatever our individual stances on Clipper,
one thing seems certain to me:  we should not allow
the White House and its allies to institute a
technology with such broad and deep effects without
the informed consent of the citizenry of the United

        If you want to find out more about Clipper,
information is available on the Internet:  by ftp
at and, at Gopher servers
at and  You can receive an index
of available information from Wired by e-mailing
[email protected] and putting one line in the
message:  "send clipper.index".  I also highly
recommend two articles in the April, 1994 Wired: 
John Perry Barlow, "Jackboots on the Infobahn," and
Brock N. Meeks, "The End of Privacy."  Usenet
newsgroups such as sci.crypt,,, alt.privacy,, and
alt.wired also carry the latest news about Clipper.

        If you want to oppose or support Clipper, you
can use the usual channels (such as phoning the
White House or your Congressional representatives). 
If you want to oppose Clipper, you can also endorse
the Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility "Petition to Oppose Clipper" by
sending e-mail to [email protected] with
the message:  "I oppose Clipper", in which case
your name will be added to the petition, and you
will receive a return message confirming your vote.

        If the forces of social control get their way,
they will usher in a Brave New World in which we
will have to know how to encrypt the data on our
computers and across our modems; the good news is,
we can.  In the next column, I'll continue this
discussion by taking up the current state of
public-key cryptography and considering the FBI's
other pet project to control communication, the
Digital Telephony Act. 

        Personal Health Bulletin:  As Locus announced,
I had coronary bypass surgery in early February,
and now, three months later, I feel great--better,
in fact, than I have in many years (years during
which my coronary disease was misdiagnosed, but
that is another story).  I would like to thank
deeply everyone who called, wrote, sent e-mail and
otherwise expressed wishes for my health.  

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