A little-known branch of the federal government has quietly taken the first
steps toward a plan that the Clinton administration calls critical in the
online fight against crime and that detractors call a breach of civil liberties.
On Monday, the Commerce Department's National
Institute of Standards and Technology announced in the Federal
Register that it is forming a 24-member technical advisory
committee to set up the Federal Key Management Infrastructure, a kind of
encryption management program popularly known as Clipper III.
Clipper III is an attempt to register with authorized third parties all
codes that can be used to decrypt public and private electronic
communications. The goal is to make sure that federal law agencies can
quickly access and read all encrypted files and messages of suspected
criminals, but critics argue that the system will work at the expense of the
privacy rights of ordinary citizens.
As it exists now, Clipper III is merely a white paper. But the methodologies
outlined in the document are being tested in
various pilot projects, according to NIST spokeswoman Anne Enright
The technical advisory panel, which will consist of cryptography
experts from government agencies and the private sector, will oversee the
eventual integration of the pilot projects into one key management system.
The government has not yet announced the names of the panelists.
Two previous proposals to create such "back doors" to encrypted electronic
information have been thwarted by protests from businesses and civil
liberties groups. And proponents of completely unlimited encryption are
beginning to ramp up opposition against number three.
"A lot of people didn't take the original Clipper III proposal very
seriously," said Alan Davidson, counsel for the online rights advocacy
group Center for Democracy and Technology.
"But this is the beginning of a real process to put the key management
infrastructure into place."
If Congress doesn't outlaw it first. A bill working its way through the Senate
promises to ban such key escrow schemes. Its main sponsor, Conrad Burns (R-Montana), has convinced a bipartisan group of Congress members that the administration's proposal--as well as current export laws that forbid the export of strong encryption technology--are bad for U.S. software companies and a threat to online privacy and security.
The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled hearings for the so-called Pro-Code Bill on July 24. Senior administration and
security officials, including FBI Director Louis Freeh, are expected to testify.