WELL-MEANING law and intelligence officials, vainly seeking to maintain their vanishing ability to eavesdrop, have come up with a scheme that endangers the personal freedom of every American.
Nobody doubts that FBI wiretaps help catch crooks or that the National Security Agency's "Big Ears" alert us to the plans of terrorists. And nobody can deny that new technology makes it easier for the bad guys to encode their communications to avoid eavesdropping.
But the solution that faceless Clinton officials are putting forward shows outdated law enforcement rooted in abysmal understanding of the information explosion.
The Clinton notion, recycled from an aborted Bush idea, is to put the same encryption chip in every telephone and computer made in the U.S. This new encoding device, or scrambler, would help you and me protect the privacy of our conversations and messages and bank accounts from each other. That sounds great, but here comes the catch: The federal government would know and be able to use the code numbers to wiretap each of us.
To the tune of "I Got Algorithm," the Eavesdrop Establishment is singing that it will help us protect our privacy -- but not from intrusion by the Feds. In effect, we are to turn over to Washington a duplicate set of keys to our homes, formerly our castles, where not even the king in olden times could go.
The "clipper chip" -- aptly named, as it clips the wings of individual liberty -- would encode, for federal perusal whenever a judge rubberstamped a warrant, everything we say on a phone, everything we write on a computer, every order we give to a shopping network or bank or 800 or 900 number, every electronic note we leave our spouses or dictate to our personal-digital-assistant genies.
Add to that stack of intimate data the medical information derived from the national "health security card" Mr. Clinton proposes we all carry. Add travel, shopping and credit data available from all our plastic cards, along with psychological and student test scores.
Throw in the confidential tax returns, sealed divorce proceedings, welfare records, field investigations for job applications, raw files and CIA dossiers available to the Feds, and you have the individual citizen standing naked to the nosy bureaucrat.
Assure us not that our personal life stories will be "safeguarded" by multiple escrows in the brave new world of snooperware; we saw only last month how political appointees can rifle the old-fashioned files of candidates and get off scot-free. Whenever personal information is amassed and readily available, it will be examined by the curious, and if it is valuable, it will be stolen by political hackers.
Ah, but wouldn't it be helpful to society to have instant access to the encoded communications of a Mafia capo, or a terrorist ordering the blow-up of a skyscraper, or a banker financing a dictator's nuclear development?
Sure it would. That's why no self-respecting vice overlord or terrorist or local drug-runner would buy or use clipper-chipped American telecommunications equipment. They would buy non-American hardware with unmonitored Japanese or German or Indian encryption chips and laugh all the way to the plutonium factory.
The only people tap-able by American agents would be honest Americans -- or those crooked Americans dopey enough to buy American equipment with the pre-compromised American code. Subsequent laws to mandate the FBI bug in every transmitter would be as effective as today's laws banning radar detectors.
Tomorrow's law enforcement and espionage cannot be planned by people stuck in the wiretap and Big Ear mind set of the past. The new Ultra secret is that the paradigm has shifted; encryption has overcome decryption.
Billions now spent on passive technical surveillance must be shifted to active means of learning criminal or aggressive plans. Human informers must be recruited or placed, as "sigint" declines and "humint" rises in the new era; psychic as well as monetary rewards for ratting must be raised; governments must collude closely to trace transfers of wealth.
Cash in your clipper chips, wiretappers: you can't detect the crime wave of the future with those old earphones on.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.