The White House's Clipper Chip Q & A


Q: Does this approach expand the authority of government agencies to listen in on phone conversations?

A: No. "Clipper Chip" technology provides law enforcement with no new authorities to access the content of the private conversations of Americans.

Q: Suppose a law enforcement agency is conducting a wiretap on a drug smuggling ring and intercepts a conversation encrypted using the device. What would they have to do to decipher the message?

A: They would have to obtain legal authorization, normally a court order, to do the wiretap in the first place. They would then present documentation of this authorization to the two entities responsible for safeguarding the keys and obtain the keys for the device being used by the drug smugglers. The key is split into two parts, which are stored separately in order to ensure the security of the key escrow system.

Q: Who will run the key-escrow data banks?

A: The two key-escrow data banks will be run by two independent entities. At this point, the Department of Justice and the Administration have yet to determine which agencies will oversee the key-escrow data banks.

Q: How strong is the security in the device? How can I be sure how strong the security is?

A: This system is more secure than many other voice encryption systems readily available today. While the algorithm will remain classified to protect the security of the key escrow system, we are willing to invite an independent panel of cryptography experts to evaluate the algorithm to assure all potential users that there are no unrecognized vulnerabilities.

Q: Whose decision was it to propose this product?

A: The National Security Council, the Justice Department, the Commerce Department, and other key agencies were involved in this decision. This approach has been endorsed by the President, the Vice President, and appropriate Cabinet officials.

Q: Who was consulted? The Congress? Industry?

A: We have on-going discussions with Congress and industry on encryption issues, and expect those discussions to intensify as we carry out our review of encryption policy. We have briefed members of Congress and industry leaders on the decisions related to this initiative.

Q: Will the government provide the hardware to manufacturers?

A: The government designed and developed the key access encryption microcircuits, but it is not providing the microcircuits to product manufacturers. Product manufacturers can acquire the microcircuits from the chip manufacturer that produces them.

Q: Who provides the "Clipper Chip"?

A: Mykotronx programs it at their facility in Torrance, California, and will sell the chip to encryption device manufacturers. The programming function could be licensed to other vendors in the future.

Q: How do I buy one of these encryption devices?

A: We expect several manufacturers to consider incorporating the "Clipper Chip" into their devices.

Q: If the Administration were unable to find a technological solution like the one proposed, would the Administration be willing to use legal remedies to restrict access to more powerful encryption devices?

A: This is a fundamental policy question which will be considered during the broad policy review. The key escrow mechanism will provide Americans with an encryption product that is more secure, more convenient, and less expensive than others readily available today, but it is just one piece of what must be the comprehensive approach to encryption technology, which the Administration is developing.

The Administration is not saying, "since encryption threatens the public safety and effective law enforcement, we will prohibit it outright" (as some countries have effectively done); nor is the U.S. saying that "every American, as a matter of right, is entitled to an unbreakable commercial encryption product." There is a false "tension" created in the assessment that this issue is an "either-or" proposition. Rather, both concerns can be, and in fact are, harmoniously balanced through a reasoned, balanced approach such as is proposed with the "Clipper Chip" and similar encryption techniques.

Q: What does this decision indicate about how the Clinton Administration's policy toward encryption will differ from that of the Bush Administration?

A: It indicates that we understand the importance of encryption technology in telecommunications and computing and are committed to working with industry and public-interest groups to find innovative ways to protect Americans' privacy, help businesses to compete, and ensure that law enforcement agencies have the tools they need to fight crime and terrorism.

Q: Will the devices be exportable? Will other devices that use the government hardware?

A: Voice encryption devices are subject to export control requirements. Case-by-case review for each export is required to ensure appropriate use of these devices. The same is true for other encryption devices. One of the attractions of this technology is the protection it can give to U.S. companies operating at home and abroad. With this in mind, we expect export licenses will be granted on a case-by-case basis for U.S. companies seeking to use these devices to secure their own communications abroad. We plan to review the possibility of permitting wider exportability of these products.