The U.S. government has never cared for digital encryption designed for private use. In the early 1990s, when such technology first became widely available, Washington responded by restricting its sale and distribution abroad and requiring telecommunication companies to structure their products in a way that made federal wiretapping efforts easier.
As Mike Godwin recounted in the May 2000 issue of reason, President Bill Clinton introduced what was dubbed the Clipper Chip program in 1993. Developed under the supervision of the National Security Agency, the chip gave the government a secret “back door” that could be used for federal investigations. As Godwin explained, the idea was that “the device would let computer or telephone users encrypt their communications, [but] it would also let the government recover the content of the coded messages.”
Digital communication technology has evolved considerably since then, but Washington’s response hasn’t changed much. In September, Justice Department officials announced that they would press Congress to pass regulations requiring all digital communication providers to alter their systems so they could be wiretapped. If carried out, the initiative would let federal officials with a court order peer into communications carried by popular online services such as Facebook and Skype and via wireless devices such as Blackberries.
Officials claim the law is a necessary response to the increasing use of encryption in personal communication, which they say is hindering their surveillance efforts. But according to an April 2010 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, state and federal courts issued 2,376 wiretap orders in 2009—and law enforcement officials encountered encryption in only one case.
Nor is it clear that the requirement would be enforceable in a world of decentralized software development. Many technology initiatives are created, updated, and maintained by loosely organized groups with no central authority.
Meanwhile, adding electronic back doors would force technology companies to reduce the security in their systems. That’s a requirement with global ramifications, since it would make it significantly easier for foreign governments and other international actors to compromise the digital security of American communications.
Under pressure from civil libertarians, the Clinton administration eventually ditched the Clipper Chip initiative. With any luck, that part of history will repeat itself too.