Clipper Chip

Definition of Clipper Chip

The Clipper Chip, also known as MYK-78, is an encryption device developed in the 1990s by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the U.S. government. It was designed to provide secure communications while enabling law enforcement agencies to legally access encrypted data through a built-in “backdoor.” However, the Clipper Chip faced significant opposition due to privacy concerns and was never widely adopted.


The phonetic pronunciation of “Clipper Chip” would be: /ˈklɪpər tʃɪp/KLIH-per chihp

Key Takeaways

  1. Clipper Chip was an encryption device developed by the U.S. government in the early 1990s, designed to secure private communications while also allowing law enforcement to access encrypted data with a warrant.
  2. It used the classified “Skipjack” encryption algorithm and a key escrow system that split a user’s encryption key into two parts, held by two separate government agencies.
  3. Due to concerns over privacy, key management, and the possibility of unauthorized surveillance, the Clipper Chip faced strong opposition from the public and tech industry, ultimately leading to its discontinuation in the late 1990s.

Importance of Clipper Chip

The Clipper Chip is an important technology term as it refers to a controversial encryption device developed in the early 1990s by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to secure electronic communications.

It was designed to protect private information while allowing for law enforcement and government access to encrypted data when required. The Clipper Chip sparked debates on encryption policy, privacy, and the balance between national security and individual rights.

Ultimately, the project faced public opposition due to suspicions about government overreach and the potential for abuse. The Clipper Chip serves as a landmark moment in the history of cryptography and has considerable relevance to contemporary discussions regarding data security, privacy, and surveillance.


The Clipper Chip was an encryption device developed in the early 1990s to allow secure communication while still enabling law enforcement and government agencies to access the content of those communications through a legally-sanctioned process. Its purpose was to strike a balance between the need for strong encryption to protect privacy and national security interests and the need for law enforcement to effectively fight criminal activities that could be facilitated through the use of encrypted digital communication. The chip, when embedded in telecommunications devices, would encrypt voice and data communications using a classified encryption algorithm called Skipjack, providing users with a level of privacy from unauthorized eavesdroppers.

However, to ensure access to the encrypted communications by law enforcement agencies, the Clipper Chip employed a key escrow system. In this system, each chip was embedded with a unique serial number and a copy of the corresponding decryption key, split into two parts and held by two separate government agencies. If law enforcement had proper legal authorization for wiretapping, the agencies could combine their respective parts of the key to decrypt the communication.

Although the Clipper Chip was intended to offer a compromise between privacy rights and national security concerns, it ultimately faced heavy opposition from privacy advocates and the technology industry. Opponents argued that the key escrow system was vulnerable to abuse and could potentially undermine the privacy of citizens and the security of digital communications. As a result, the Clipper Chip never saw widespread adoption and eventually faded out of relevance.

Examples of Clipper Chip

The Clipper Chip was a controversial technology developed during the 1990s as an encryption device for protecting communication privacy. Here are three real-world examples related to the Clipper Chip:

AT&T Telecommunications: In 1993, the United States National Security Agency (NSA) introduced the Clipper Chip as part of their key escrow program. AT&T, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the US, was one of the first to adopt the Clipper Chip in their “Secure Telephone Unit (STU-III)” encrypted voice communication devices. These devices were used in various governmental and non-governmental organizations to provide secure communication lines.

Opposition from privacy advocates and technology industry: The Clipper Chip faced backlash from privacy advocates and the technology industry since its introduction. Critics argued that the Clipper Chip would jeopardize individual privacy and the confidentiality of business transactions due to the potential for government agencies to access encrypted communication. This opposition led to multiple campaigns against the adoption of Clipper Chip technology and contributed to its decline.

Alternative encryption technologies: In response to the controversies surrounding the Clipper Chip, several alternative encryption technologies emerged during the same period. One notable example is the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), a software program developed by Phil Zimmermann that allowed users to encrypt their communications without the need for government-held keys. This alternative technology gained widespread adoption, further diminishing the relevance of the Clipper Chip.

Clipper Chip FAQ

1. What is a Clipper Chip?

The Clipper Chip was an encryption device developed in the early 1990s by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). It was designed to secure voice and data communications while allowing law enforcement agencies to decrypt and access the information via a special key.

2. How did the Clipper Chip work?

The Clipper Chip used a symmetric encryption algorithm called SKIPJACK that was developed by the NSA. The device encrypted communication between two parties, and each Clipper Chip had a unique key for decryption. Law enforcement agencies could access this key via a special “Law Enforcement Access Field” (LEAF) if they had the legal authority to do so.

3. Why was the Clipper Chip controversial?

The controversy surrounding the Clipper Chip centered around concerns about privacy and the potential for abuse by government agencies. Critics argued that the existence of a “backdoor” for law enforcement could lead to unauthorized surveillance, and many onlookers expressed skepticism about the potential security vulnerabilities of the Clipper Chip.

4. Was Clipper Chip ever widely adopted?

No, the Clipper Chip failed to gain significant adoption and was eventually discontinued. Strong opposition from civil liberties groups, security experts, and the technology industry contributed to its lack of widespread use, as well as the development of alternative encryption technologies that did not contain government backdoors.

5. What was the impact of the Clipper Chip on encryption policies?

The Clipper Chip controversy played a significant role in shaping the debate over encryption and government surveillance. The Clipper Chip’s failure led to a broader conversation about the balance between privacy and national security, and it contributed to eventual policy changes that allowed for the widespread use of strong encryption without built-in backdoors.

Related Technology Terms

  • Encryption
  • Key Escrow
  • Communications Security
  • Telecommunications Privacy
  • Government Surveillance

Sources for More Information


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