Date: Fri, 25 Feb 94 16:24:20 EST
To: denning@cs.cosc.georgetown.edu
From: Ron Rivest
Subject: Newsday Editorial

Hi Dorothy --

Thanks for sending me a copy of your editorial. But I find the reasoning you present misleading and unpersuasive.

First, you argue that the clipper chip will be a useful law enforcement tool. Given the small number of currently authorized wiretaps per year (under 1000) and the ease of using alternative encryption technology or superencryption, it seems plausible to me that law enforcement could expect at most ten "successful" clipper wiretaps per year. This is a pretty marginal basis for claiming that clipper will "block crime".

Second, you seem to believe that anything that will "block crime" must therefore be a "good thing" and should therefore be adopted. This is not true, even if it is not subject to government abuse. For example, a system that could turn any telephone (even when on-hook) into an authorized listening microphone might help law enforcement, but would be unacceptable to almost all Americans. As another example, tatooing a person's social security number on his or her buttocks might help law enforcement, but would also be objectionable. Or, you could require all citizens to wear a bracelet that could be remotely queried (electronically, and only when authorized) to return the location of that citizen. There are all kinds of wonderfully stupid things one could do with modern technology that could "help" law enforcement. But merely being of assistance to law enforcement doesn't make a proposal a good thing; many such ideas are objectionable and unacceptable because of the unreasonably large cost/benefit ratio (real or psychological cost). The clipper proposal, in my opinion, is of exactly this nature.

Third, you seem unnecessarily polly-annish about our government and the potential for abuse. The clipper proposal places all trust for its management within the executive branch; a corrupt president could direct that it be used for inappropriate purposes. The unspecified nature of many of the associated procedures leaves much room to speculate that there are "holes" that could be exploited by government officials to abuse the rights of American citizens. Even if the proposal were modified to split the trust among the various branches of government, one might still reasonably worry about possible abuse. Merely because you've met the current set of representatives of various agencies, and feel you can trust them, doesn't mean that such trust can be warranted in their successors. One should build in institutional checks and balances that overcome occasional moral lapses in one or more office holders.

Fourth, your discussion of "searching your home and seizing your papers" is misleading. You seem to imply that because law enforcement can be issued a warrant to search your home, that we should adopt clipper. Yet this analogy only makes sense if individuals were required to deposit copies of their front door keys with the government. I can build any kind of house I wish (out of steel, for example), and put any kind of locks on it, and wire up any kind of intrusion detectors on it, etc. The government, armed with a search warrant, is not guaranteed an "easy entry" into my home at all. The appropriate analogical conclusion is that individuals should be able to use any kind of encryption they want, and the government should be allowed (when authorized, of course) to try and break their encryption.

Finally, you argue (elsewhere, not in this editorial) that the decision rests in part on "classified" information. Such an argument only makes sense if there is a specific law-enforcement situation that makes such classified information timely and relevant. (E.g., if there was a current investigation as to whether the Department of the Treasury had been infiltrated by organized crime.) The use of "classified information" is otherwise generally inappropriate in discussing communications policy that will last over decades.

This hardly covers all of the relevant issues, but it covers the points that came immediately to mind in reading your editorial...

        Cheers,
        Ron [Rivest]

P.S. Feel free to pass along, quote, or otherwise re-distribute this...


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|           Newsday, Tuesday, February 22, 1994, Viewpoints            |
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The Clipper Chip Will Block Crime

By Dorothy E. Denning

Hidden among the discussions of the information highway is a fierce debate, with huge implications for everyone. It centers on a tiny computer chip called the Clipper, which uses sophisticated coding to scramble electronic communications transmitted through the phone system.

The Clinton administration has adopted the chip, which would allow law enforcement agencies with court warrants to read the Clipper codes and eavesdrop on terrorists and criminals. But opponents say that, if this happens, the privacy of law-abiding individuals will be a risk. They want people to be able to use their own scramblers, which the government would not be able to decode.

If the opponents get their way, however, all communications on the information highway would be immune from lawful interception. In a world threatened by international organized crime, terrorism, and rogue governments, this would be folly. In testimony before Congress, Donald Delaney, senior investigator with the New York State Police, warned that if we adopted an encoding standard that did not permit lawful intercepts, we would have havoc in the United States.

Moreover, the Clipper coding offers safeguards against casual government intrusion. It requires that one of the two components of a key embedded in the chip be kept with the Treasury Department and the other component with the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology. Any law enforcement official wanting to wiretap would need to obtain not only a warrant but the separate components from the two agencies. This, plus the superstrong code and key system would make it virtually impossible for anyone, even corrupt government officials, to spy illegally.

But would terrorists use Clipper? The Justice Department has ordered $8 million worth of Clipper scramblers in the hope that they will become so widespread and convenient that everyone will use them. Opponents say that terrorists will not be so foolish as to use encryption to which the government holds the key but will scramble their calls with their own code systems. But then who would have thought that the World Trade Center bombers would have been stupid enough to return a truck that they had rented?

Court-authorized interception of communications has been essential for preventing and solving many serious and often violent crimes, including terrorism, organized crime, drugs, kidnaping, and political corruption. The FBI alone has had many spectacular successes that depended on wiretaps. In a Chicago case code-named RUKBOM, they prevented the El Rukn street gang, which was acting on behalf of the Libyan government, from shooting down a commercial airliner using a stolen military weapons system.

To protect against abuse of electronic surveillance, federal statutes impose stringent requirements on the approval and execution of wiretaps. Wiretaps are used judiciously (only 846 installed wiretaps in 1992) and are targeted at major criminals.

Now, the thought of the FBI wiretapping my communications appeals to me about as much as its searching my home and seizing my papers. But the Constitution does not give us absolute privacy from court-ordered searches and seizures, and for good reason. Lawlessness would prevail.

Encoding technologies, which offer privacy, are on a collision course with a major crime-fighting tool: wiretapping. Now the Clipper chip shows that strong encoding can be made available in a way that protects private communications but does not harm society if it gets into the wrong hands. Clipper is a good idea, and it needs support from people who recognize the need for both privacy and effective law enforcement on the information highway.

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