In an abrupt and significant reversal, the Clinton administration indicated yesterday that it was willing to consider alternatives to its Clipper chip wiretapping technology, which has been widely criticized by industry executives and privacy-rights groups.
In a letter yesterday to a congressional opponent of the technology, Vice President Al Gore said that the administration was willing to explore industry alternatives to Clipper, a system designed in secrecy by National Security Agency scientists.
Intended as a way to let people scramble their electronic conversations -- but retain law-enforcement agencies' ability to conduct court-authorized wiretaps -- the Clipper chip was introduced by the administration in April 1993 as the government's preferred method for communicating in secret code in the era of computerized digital electronics. Such coded communications use hardware and software known as encryption technology.
Critics have said that because Clipper is classified, there is no way to verify whether the nation's intelligence agencies have embedded a secret electronic "backdoor" in the Clipper design that might allow for unauthorized government spying.
And software and computer industry executives have worried that the government would use its Clipper preference as a way to block exports of hardware and software products using other commercially available -- and more popular -- encryption methods.
But Mr. Gore's letter is the apparent result of a compromise with Rep. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who recently introduced legislation that would have significantly relaxed controls on the export of encryption software.
Ms. Cantwell said she welcomed the vice president's willingness to compromise. "I view this as going down a new path, with a new set of criteria," she said yesterday.