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Key Escrow from a Safe Distance: Looking Back at the Clipper Chip

Authors: Blaze, Matt

Published: 2011

URL: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2076732.2076777

Tags: 1990s 2010s Crypto Wars Crypto Wars I

Abstract: In 1993, the US Government proposed a novel (and highly controversial) approach to cryptography, called key escrow. Key escrow cryptosystems used standard symmetric- and public- key ciphers, key management techniques and protocols, but with one added feature: a copy of the current session key, itself encrypted with a key known to the government, was sent at the beginning of every encrypted communication stream. In this way, if a government wiretapper encountered ciphertext produced under a key escrowed cryptosystem, recovering the plaintext would be a simple matter of decrypting the session key with the government’s key, regardless of the strength of the underlying cipher algorithms. Key escrow was intended to strike a “balance” between the needs for effective communications security against bad guys on the one hand and the occasional need for the good guys to be able to recover meaningful content from (presumably) legally-authorized wiretaps.