CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1994 //

Jacking in from the Congressional Port:

Washington, DC -- White House's slippery plan to salt information highway with its home-grown encryption technology has irked at least two members of Congress, prompting a call for congressional hearings.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Technology and Law Subcommittee said he would likely hold hearings "on the serious issues raised" by Administration's announcement that it would urge private sector to voluntarily adopt its Clipper Chip technology. "Basically, what this means is that the United States Government will hold the two keys to unlock any private communication coded with this program," Leahy said. Citizens and potential foreign customers aren't likely to see Clipper "as the solution to privacy and security concerns," he said.

White House plan was called "disappointing," by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Cal.). "I was hoping for a more realistic policy from the Administration," said Edwards, a former FBI agent. "Competitors all over the world can sell the strongest encryption technology, but U.S. companies cannot," he said.

Leahy waded in on Administration and law enforcement claims that Clipper would help thwart terrorist and criminal activity, saying it was "obvious" these groups would shun Clipper enabled devices. "Why would any sophisticated criminal or terrorist decide to use Clipper Chip to keep their communications secret when this is the one encryption method to which the government holds the keys?" he asked.

Despite Leahy's misgivings, the Administration and law enforcement agencies continue to bank on the success of Clipper because most criminals are "just dumb," the FBI has stated repeatedly.

The Administration's decision to keep the handcuffs on export controls of privately developed encryption schemes also worried the congressmen. Leahy called it "a misstep... Why would any foreign government want to buy American software or telecommunications equipment containing Clipper Chip when the U.S. government has the keys to eavesdrop on any private communications?"

Edwards said the new policy "won't stop terrorists and drug traffickers from acquiring encryption technology," adding he hoped President Clinton would "look at this policy again."

The government shouldn't be in the business of mandating particular technologies, Leahy said. "Whatever confidence I might have that the U.S. government will limit its use of the decoding keys to specific and justifiable law enforcement objectives, I doubt my confidence will be universally shared," he said.

Meeks out...

Well, almost... Leahy's office said he wants to hear from the public on the matter of holding hearings. Any and all comments on the viability of the program, any concerns the public has, should be sent to Leahy immediately, a staffer said. Leahy can be reached at: Committee on the Judiciary, Washington, DC 20510; his phone number is 202-224-3406.