The Devil’s Code

The Devil’s Code by John Sanford was published in 2000. Fourteen years ago.

Clipper II was an Orwellian nightmare come true, a practical impossibility, or a huge joke at the taxpayers’ expense—take your pick. It was designed in response to a fear of the U.S. government that unbreakable codes would make intercept-intelligence impractical. And really, they had a point, but their solution was so draconian that it was doomed to failure from the start.

The Clipper II chip—like the original Clipper chip before it was a chip designed to handle strong encryption. If it was made mandatory (which the government wanted), everyone would have to use it. And the encryption was guaranteed secure. Absolutely unbreakable.

Except that the chip contained a set of keys just for the government, just in case. If they needed to, they could look up the key for a particular chip, get a wiretap permit, and decrypt any messages that were sent using the chip. They would thereby bring to justice (they said) all kinds of Mafiosos, drug dealers, money launderers, and other lowlifes.

For those too young to remember, the Clipper chip was a real thing. The NSA was a real thing as well.

Word got around, and the word was that the NSA was rapidly becoming obsolete. Once upon a time, agency operatives could tap any phone call or radio transmission in the world; they could put Mao Tse-tung’s private words on the president’s desk an hour after the Maximum Leader spoke them into his office phone; they could provide real-time intercepts to the special ops people in the military.

No more. The world was rife with unbreakable codes—any good university math department could whip one up in a matter of days. Just as bad, the most critical diplomatic and military traffic had come out of the air and gone underground, into fiber-optic cable. Even if a special forces team managed to get at a cable, messages were routinely encoded with ultrastrong encryption routines.

The NSA was going deaf. And the word was, they didn’t know what to do about it. They’d become a bin full of aging bureaucrats worried about their jobs, and spinning further and further out ot the Washington intelligence center.

And if the NSA was becoming obsolete, might their solution look something like what we have today?