White House Tones Down Clipper Chip Proposal

An early sign that Clipper was in trouble came in early 1994:

From the February 14, 1994, Newsbytes:

The Administration is trying to back away from remarks by Vice President Al Gore which might indicate it's retreating from a plan to use "Clipper Chip" encryption.

... Gore's remarks, made at a National Information Infrastructure Advisory Committee meeting, which advises the President on the Information Superhighway, were quickly passed around the Internet, where some interpreted them as meaning the Administration is seeking a face-saving way out of the controversy. But Lorraine Voles, a Gore spokeswoman, denied this to Newsbytes: "He's not off the reservation at all," with the Clipper Chip. "All the Vice President was trying to do was say we'd look at better ways to do it," declining to elaborate further.

A few months later, the White House was trying vainly to salvage the proposal:

July 1994, from Stanton McCandlish:

Yesterday, the Clinton Administration announced that it is taking several large, quick steps back in its efforts to push EES or Clipper encryption technology. Vice-President Gore stated in a letter to Rep. Maria Cantwell, whose encryption export legislation is today being debated on the House floor, that EES is being limited to voice communications only.

The EES (Escrowed Encryption Standard using the Skipjack algorithm, and including the Clipper and Capstone microchips) is a Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) designed by the National Security Agency, and approved, despite a stunningly high percentage anti-EES public comments on the proposal, by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Since the very day of the announcement of Clipper in 1993, public outcry against the key "escrow" system has been strong, unwavering and growing rapidly.

What's changed? The most immediate alteration in the White House's previously hardline path is an expressed willingness to abandon the EES for computer applications (the Capstone chip and Tessera card), and push for its deployment only in telephone technology (Clipper). The most immediate effect this will have is a reduction in the threat to the encryption software market that Skipjack/EES plans posed.

Additionally, Gore's letter indicates that deployment for even the telephone application of Clipper has been put off for months of studies, perhaps partly in response to a draft bill from Sens. Patrick Leahy and Ernest Hollings that would block appropriation for EES development until many detailed conditions had been met.

And according to observers such as Brock Meeks (Cyberwire Dispatch) and Mark Voorhees (Voorhees Reports/Information Law Alert), even Clipper is headed for a fall, due to a variety of factors including failure in attempts to get other countries to adopt the scheme, at least one state bill banning use of EES for medical records, loss of NSA credibility after a flaw in the "escrowed" key system was discovered by Dr. Matt Blaze of Bell Labs, a patent infringement lawsuit threat (dealt with by buying off the claimant), condemnation of the scheme by a former Canadian Defense Minister, world wide opposition to Clipper and the presumptions behind it, skeptical back-to-back House and Senate hearings on the details of the Administration's plan, and pointed questions from lawmakers regarding monopolism and accountability.

... Though Gore hints at private, rather than governmental, key "escrow," the Administration does still maintain that key "escrow" is an important part of its future cryptography policy. ...

Excerpts from Gore's public letter to Rep. Cantwell:

July 20, 1994
The Honorable Maria Cantwell
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C., 20515

Dear Representative Cantwell:

I write to express my sincere appreciation for your efforts to move the national debate forward on the issue of information security and export controls. ...

... we need to take action this year to assure that over time American companies are able to include information security features in their programs in order to maintain their admirable international competitiveness. We can achieve this by entering into an new phase of cooperation among government, industry representatives and privacy advocates with a goal of trying to develop a key escrow encryption system that will provide strong encryption, be acceptable to computer users worldwide, and address our national needs as well.

Key escrow encryption offers a very effective way to accomplish our national goals. That is why the Administration adopted key escrow encryption in the "Clipper Chip" to provide very secure encryption for telephone communications while preserving the ability for law enforcement and national security. But the Clipper Chip is an approved federal standard for telephone communications and not for computer networks and video networks. For that reason, we are working with industry to investigate other technologies for those applications.

The Administration understands the concerns that industry has regarding the Clipper Chip. We welcome the opportunity to work with industry to design a more versatile, less expensive system. Such a key escrow system would be implementable in software, firmware, hardware, or any combination thereof, would not rely upon a classified algorithm, would be voluntary, and would be exportable. ...

We also want to assure users of key escrow encryption products that they will not be subject to unauthorized electronic surveillance. As we have done with the Clipper Chip, future key escrow systems must contain safeguards to provide for key disclosure only under legal authorization ...

We also recognize that a new key escrow encryption system must permit the use of private-sector key escrow agents as one option. ...

... I am looking forward to working with you and others who share our interest in developing a comprehensive national policy on encryption. I am convinced that our cooperative endeavors will open new creative solutions to this critical problem.

Sincerely, Al Gore