Jacking in from the "Sooner or Later" Port:
Washington, DC -- If private encryption schemes interfere with the FBI's ability to wiretap, they could be outlawed, according to recent comments made by the agency's Director Louis Freeh.
Freeh told attendees here at the recent conference on Global Cryptography that if the Administration's Escrowed Encryption System, otherwise known as the Clipper Chip, failed to gain acceptance, giving way to private encryption technologies, he would have no choice but to press Congress to pass legislation that provided law enforcement access to all encrypted communications.
If, after having pushed Digital Telephony through Congress (which hadn't yet happened when Freeh spoke at this conference), all the Bureau ended up with during wiretaps were the scratchy hiss of digital one's and zeros being hurled back and forth, Freeh made it clear that he would seek a congressional mandate to solve the problem.
In other words: Roll your own coded communications; go to jail.
Freeh's comments, made during a question and answer session at the conference, are the first public statements made by an Administration official hinting at a future governmental policy that could result in the banning of non-governmental, unbreakable encryption methods.
Freeh's remarks were first reported on the WELL by MacWorld writer and author Steven Levy. The FBI confirmed those statements to Dispatch.
The Administration, however, continues to state that it has no plans to outlaw or place any restrictions on private encryption methods.
A White House official said there are "absolutely no plans" on the table to regulate domestic encryption "at the present time." He wouldn't comment, however, as to whether the Administration would back an FBI attempt for such legislation. "Freeh doesn't seem to need a lot of White House support," to get things done, the official said.
FBI sources said any moves to approach Congress about regulating private encryption are "so far out there" time wise, that the subject "doesn't merit much ink," as one FBI source put it. "We've got to make sure the telcos rig up their current networks according to the new [digital wiretap] law before we go worrying about private encryption stuff," he said.
An FBI spokesman confirmed Freeh's position that the Bureau would aggressively seek to maintain what the spokesman called "law and order objectives." If that meant getting laws passed so that the Bureau's "authorized wiretap activities" couldn't be thwarted by "criminal elements using non-governmental" encryption schemes, "then that's what he [Freeh] would do," the spokesman said.
When the Administration went public with its Clipper Chip policy, it stressed that the program would not be mandatory. Many civil liberties groups wondered out loud how long it would be before private encryption was banned altogether. The White House, anxious for the public to buy into its one-trick pony the Clipper Chip, said that wouldn't happen.
But the Administration hedged its bet.
Buried in the background briefing papers of the original Clipper announcement, is a statement that the White House doesn't consider the public's right to use private encryption methods are protected anywhere in the Constitution.