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Electronic Activism: Clipper

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You may have heard mutterings in the media about the Clipper chip, a computer chip that provides encryption services for both data and voice transmissions (that's right, telephones). The concept is good - if you're sending sensitive information about your love life to a friend, you may want to make sure that no one can pry through your email. However, the Clipper chip has a catch, a back door, if you will. The U.S. government, in the form of the FBI and the NSA, wants to have "keys" to the Clipper chip that enable them to decode anything encrypted with the Clipper chip. The government argues that they need this capability to be able to learn about terrorist and criminal plans, particularly those that threaten national security.

However, there are several good reasons to oppose the adoption of the Clipper chip. First, the government has never proven itself entirely trustworthy in terms of protecting the privacy of its citizens, and frankly, there is no "government" that holds these "keys" - government employees do, and people cannot be completely trustworthy. Just think of the scandal if the Clipper chip were adopted and some government employee sold the secret back door to another country. Second, even if you aren't concerned with the government possibly poking through your personal information, isn't it a bit arrogant to assume that the U.S. is the only country that could come up with a decent encryption technology? Smart criminals and terrorists would simply pay a hotshot programmer from some other country to create an unbreakable encryption technology, and use that one to avoid having their communications fall into the hands of the FBI and NSA. Clipper is an act of electronic hubris.

CPSR, the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, has organized a petition drive to oppose the Clipper chip proposal. If you wish to sign on to this petition, all you have to do is send email to <clipper.petition@cpsr.org> with the message "I oppose Clipper" (sans quotes) in the body of the letter. CPSR has also made information about the Clipper chip available on the Internet via FTP, WAIS, and Gopher as:

gopher://cpsr.org/
ftp://cpsr.org/cpsr/privacy/crypto/clipper/

There's another way you can work against the Clipper chip proposal and the U.S. restriction on export of powerful encryption software. Currently, encryption software that the NSA cannot decrypt may not be exported from the U.S. (again assuming that other countries couldn't come up with their own unbreakable schemes). U.S. Representative Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) has introduced a bill into the House of Representatives that would move authority of the export of encryption software from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Commerce, and would also invalidate license requirements for non-military software containing encryption capabilities unless there is substantial evidence that the software will be specifically used or modified for military or terrorist use.

To get more information about the Cantwell bill, send email to <cantwell-info@eff.org>, and to add your voice to those supporting Cantwell's bill, send email to <cantwell@eff.org> with "I support HR 3627" in the Subject line of your message. In the body of the message, outline reasons why you support Cantwell's bill. If you wish to read the full text of the bill, it's available on the Internet at the following URLs and soon on AOL (keyword EFF) and CompuServe (GO EFFSIG).

ftp://ftp.eff.org/pub/Policy/Legislation/ cantwell.bill
http://www.eff.org/ftp/EFF/Policy/Legislation/ cantwell.bill
gopher://gopher.eff.org/00/EFF/legislation/ cantwell.bill

For yet more information about the Clipper chip situation, you can retrieve two essays written by John Perry Barlow and Brock N. Meeks for WIRED. To receive these essays, send email to <infobot@wired.com> with these three lines in the body of the message:

send clipper/privacy.meeks
send clipper/privacy.barlow
end

Barlow's essay raises the same arguments I've raised above, but also relates the White House staff's responses. Depressing stuff. WIRED also sports some Gopher- and World-Wide Web-based sources of information on this topic at:

gopher://gopher.wired.com
http://www.wired.com

I recommend reading some of the information to see what the hullabaloo is about. For those not in the U.S., consider if the same argument might not arise in your country (one report mentioned that the NSA is shopping the technology around to other countries), and even if not, how the Clipper chip and related legislation could affect communications with the U.S. and the U.S. computer industry. We live in a global economy, and those of us on the nets interact daily on a global basis. That's important, and must not be compromised.

 

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