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Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption

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In the spring of 1993, the White House announced an unprecedented plan for both promoting and
controlling the use of secret codes to keep communications private. The plan, formally called key
escrow but popularly known as "Clipper" after its star component, the Clipper chip, was to adopt a
new federal standard for encryption, a standard that would ensure that the government could always
read encrypted messages if it chose.

The Clipper proposal was met by a storm of protest. It was criticized by some as an outrageous
violation of civil liberties, by some because the standard could only be implemented in hardware, and
by still others on a wide variety of grounds. Despite the opposition, Clipper seemed, in a sense, to
have won. After a mandatory public comment period, which produced two letters in favor and 300
against, the standard was adopted. In a more fundamental sense, however, the Clipper program
seemed to have lost. Aside from the 9000 telephone security devices that the FBI purchased in an
attempt to seed the market, very little Clipper-based equipment has been built.

The Clipper debate proved to be the opening engagement in an ongoing battle about the right to use
encryption. Having tried to use its buying power and standards-making authority to impose key
escrow, the government turned to the only other non-legislative tool available: export control.

The United States has approximately 5% of the world's population. In light of this, it is not surprising
that, although the country's share of the world economy is way out of proportion to its population,
most major US corporations sell more than half their products in other countries. This makes the
larger part of their markets subject to export-control laws.
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