The ‘Crypto Wars’ of the 1990s are brewing again in Washington

The ‘Crypto Wars’ of the 1990s are brewing again in Washington

A debate over data security is brewing in Washington. On one side, law enforcement officials warn that new deployments of encryption, the technology that protects our communications and stored data from prying eyes, is leaving the government without the insight it needs to track down criminals and terrorists. On the other, privacy advocates and tech companies say efforts to build ways for law enforcement to access protected communications will leave everyone less secure.

But for many longtime techies, this isn’t anything new — it’s a repeat of the “Crypto Wars” of the 1990s. In fact, former Clinton tech policy official Michael Nelson said in a recent op-ed published by the Hill that it is giving him a bad case of “digital deja vu.”

Nelson, who now works on public policy at CloudFlare, was the Clinton administration’s point person on the Clipper chip — a government-backed piece of technology from the early 1990s designed to give authorities a way to wiretap encrypted phone calls.

Here’s how he described the thinking behind it at a New York City Bar Association event in 1995:

We set about developing Clipper because we wanted to develop strong cryptography that would not undermine the ability of law enforcement to do its job. We were really faced with three choices. First choice was to adopt relatively weak cryptography, use that throughout the government, knowing that if we needed to we could break it and we could do a wiretap. Second choice was to adopt very strong cryptography, use that and just give up on the ability to do wiretaps. Clipper was the third choice. It was a technology that gave people very strong cryptography that would protect communications and files against unauthorized access, but in the event that law enforcement needed to do a wiretap, that would be possible, and that’s why we chose to go that route.

Technologists raised alarm bells at the time that such access would undermine the security of the whole system — after all, if the government has a secret backdoor into a technical system, what’s to stop a malicious hacker from finding it? And when experts had a chance to review the device, they quickly discovered technical flaws that undermined its credibility — contributing to the Clipper chip’s ultimate demise.

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