So I recently re-read Lawrence Wright's controversial piece in the
New Yorker profiling Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.
While the piece's glimpse into the administration's attitudes toward torture
and warrantless wiretaps have gotten much attention, I was particularly
struck by this paragraph:

In the nineties, new encryption software that could protect telephone conversations, faxes, and e-mails from unwarranted monitoring was coming on the market, but the programs could also block entirely legal efforts to eavesdrop on criminals or potential terrorists. Under McConnell's direction, the N.S.A. developed a sophisticated device, the Clipper Chip, with a superior ability to encrypt any electronic transmission; it also allowed law-enforcement officials, given the proper authority, to decipher and eavesdrop on the encrypted communications of others. Privacy advocates criticized the device, though, and the Clipper was abandoned by 1996. "They convinced the folks on the Hill that they couldn't trust the government to do what it said it was going to do," Richard Wilhelm, who was in charge of
     information warfare under McConnell, says.

This seems to me a significant re-writing of history, and the Wilhelm quote a particularly disingenuous interpretation of recent events. In fact, Clipper died on the vine due to technical problems that rendered it ineffective for its intended purpose (to say nothing of the extravagance of being implemented in an expensive tamper- resistant ASIC). And key escrow and crypto export controls died (in 2000) not from an act of Congress (which never actually voted on any cryptography legislation), but from unilateral action within the executive branch. In 2004, the Bush administration further liberalized the crypto export control policies of the previous administration, which I believe had (and still
have) strong bipartisan support.

While Clipper certainly was a lightning rod for criticism on privacy grounds, the changes in policy that eventually occurred can hardly be attributed to some sort of frightened
capitulation to an out-of-control privacy lobby, as the quote implies.

I blog a bit more about this at mcconnell_clipper/


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