IT is a high-tech twist on an old American dilemma. How does a free society balance the individual's right to privacy with the police's need to snoop?
For a year, the debate has raged over Clipper, a computer chip that scrambles telephone calls but allows a special ``back door'' for government wire-tappers. Now, the controversy has widened. The Justice Department wants legislation that would force all telecommunications equipment to be so easily tapped. Public reaction has been swift and negative.
``It's starting to look like economic coercion - use this or else - even though the [Clipper] standard is supposed to be voluntary,'' says David Peyton, a vice president with the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.
``Do not be fooled,'' the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted on its electronic bulletin board. ``The FBI scheme would turn the data superhighway into a national surveillance network of staggering proportions.''
This harsh rhetoric has political ramifications. Computer companies and other onetime supporters of the administration's proposals for a 21st-century data highway are now lining up against the White House because of Clipper.
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a public-interest group, has collected more than 50,000 signatures on an anti-Clipper petition. On March 9, the Digital Privacy and Security Working Group wrote the administration, criticizing the Justice Department's digital-telephony bill. The group, coordinated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a coalition of privacy and civil liberties organizations, trade associations, and companies such as Apple Computer. Apple's former chief executive John Sculley was a strong and early supporter of the Clinton campaign.
``We still see no evidence that current law enforcement efforts are being jeopardized by new technologies,'' the working group told President Clinton. ``Nor are we convinced that future law enforcement activities will be jeopardized given industry cooperation.''
The public seems unconvinced too. In a recent Time/CNN poll, two-thirds of those surveyed said it was more important to protect the privacy of telephone calls than the police's ability to conduct wiretaps.
``There were a lot of negative comments about the system,'' concedes Mat Heyman, a spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. ``But there were no alternatives.''
Last month, the Clinton administration approved the Clipper chip as a voluntary standard that federal agencies could use to protect sensitive telephone calls.
Although the White House has made Clipper voluntary, it is clearly hoping that federal agencies will help promote its use in the private sector. If the Defense Department decides it needs Clipper, will defense contractors be far behind? What will H. R. Block do if the Internal Revenue Service uses the standard?
``There will be great resistance'' in the private sector, Mr. Peyton says. ``I foresee a major agency-by-agency struggle'' over the question of adopting Clipper.
For all the brouhaha, it is not clear how many companies or individuals actually want or need voice encryption.
At the moment, the only way to get Clipper technology is AT&T's Surity Telephone Device 3600. The device is not much bigger than a hand-held calculator and is easy to use. Callers at either end plug it into their handset, press its button, and voil the phone call is secure. At $1,195, the device is a lot cheaper than the current secure telephones that AT&T sells for $2,650. Still, early sales are underwhelming.
``It is not very many,'' concedes AT&T spokesman David Arneke. Although the company has orders from private companies, it has not delivered any yet. The only announced customer is the FBI, which has ordered several thousand.
``We think it's the right thing to do ... in terms of a balanced approach,'' says FBI spokesman Barry Smith, who has used the device. ``It works great - clear and everything.''