Libertarians Duel Spies In Scrambling Debate

WASHINGTON -- The hottest debate today about America's technology future is not technical. It boils down to this: Is it more important to protect society from the bad guys or to protect the privacy rights of all citizens -- including those of the bad guys?

The question pits high-tech industries and civil libertarians against the Clinton administration. The White House is proposing a two-part strategy to guarantee that law enforcement agencies can continue to intercept and understand voice and data communications. The Clinton team is responding to law enforcement fears that new technologies make it relatively easy to avoid being tapped or to make unintelligible that which is intercepted.

One part of the White House strategy is Justice Department legislation to ensure that communications gear be easy to tap.

The second part is the administration's attempt to impose its so-called "Clipper Chip" as the standard for encryption, the scrambling of voice and data communications. The Clipper does a dandy job of encrypting, but also has a back door that law enforcement officers can slip through to listen in, assuming a court grants permission. Other encryption programs have no such back door, and the government has been unable to crack some of them.

Both sides paint nightmares scenarios about what would happen if they lose: Law enforcement officials warn of terrorists planning atrocities under a cloak of unbreakable codes.

Civil-liberties advocates see a high-tech Big Brother monitoring all sorts of electronic transactions along an information snooperhighway.

High-tech firms warn that the plan could cripple the United States's technological edge by requiring that businesses adopted cumbersome government-mandated technologies.

Cryptography already is important to banks and other businesses that engage in electronic transactions; millions of encryption packages have been sold. Clipper is supposed to ensure that once investigators tap phones, they will be able to understand what's said.

But privacy can be dangerous in the wrong hands, officials warn. The FBI and the National Security Agency, or NSA, say the explosion of cellular phones, computer networks and encryption technology will all but prevent them from listening in on criminals and terrorists.

The Justice Department bill would require that access for wiretaps be made available in all communications gear. Firms that do not comply could be fined $10,000 a day, or be shut down.

The FBI and NSA have long been able to capture virtually any conversation or data transmission over phones.

The problem for police agencies now is that the new encryption technology is outrunning their ability to keep up with code-breaking. In an attempt to make sure they stayed even, the agencies developed Clipper in the Bush administration and won the support of the Clinton team. The administration's strategy to impose Clipper is aimed right at the bottom line. No one will be forced to buy Clipper, but government agencies will be required to use it and will buy it by the thousands and require their contractors to do the same. That establishes a standard that makes it tough for competing systems.

The administration plans strict controls on the export of other encryption systems, but not Clipper. So U.S. encryption system manufacturers that do not use Clipper will be shut out of the biggest domestic market -- the government -- and the export market for those buyers who do not want to automatically grant access to the U.S. government.

"Basically, we're saying we're going to sell our phones and computers abroad with a note saying, "All encrypted communications sent on this equipment are guaranteed to be available to the U.S. government upon its secret request,' " said Democratic Senator Patrick J. Leahy, who plans to hold hearings on Clipper. "I think the administration should go back to the drawing board on this one."