Clipping Privacy

WITH the rise of electronic mail, public data networks, and cordless and cellular phones has come a rise in devices to encode data to protect the users' privacy. But law enforcement officials worry that these advances will undercut their ability to secretly gather evidence through wiretaps and other surveillance methods.

To respond to law enforcement's need, the Clinton administration reportedly is seeking a bill that would require phone and cable companies to use software designed to allow law enforcement agencies to monitor phone and data transmissions. Earlier this month, the administration decided to push federal agencies to include so-called Clipper Chips in computers and phones they use. If that extends to vendors and contractors, the chip may become a de facto industry standard. The chips were designed in conjunction with the National Security Agency to permit unscrambling of coded data transmissions.

These moves represent potential dangers to privacy; they take on added urgency with the imminent marriage of computers, phones, and cable services in ways that reduce the diversity of people's means of communication even as they use those means for more activities. No one doubts the need for effective law enforcement. The government, however, should not be in the business of asking manufacturers to build secret backdoors into their equipment, particularly when government holds the keys. The proposals also raise questions as to how appealing United States technology exports will be overseas if such backdoor access is built in.

Congress should take a hard look at any bill that tries to expand the government's ability to peer through the electronic blinds, no matter how well-meaning the motive.

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