What caused the Clinton administration to discontinue its efforts to regulate digital cryptography via surveillance technologies implanted in consumer products, 1993-1998?

Craig Jarvis

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The public policy debate over the degree to which citizens should be permitted access to encryption, to technology capable of placing their secrets beyond the reach of their governments, is known as the ‘crypto wars’. In the 1990s, the state recognised that citizens required digital cryptography for protection against myriad online threats, but also that such technologies may impede its ability to discover illegal acts. The state feared that should its investigative abilities erode, an ungoverned online domain akin to a fortified citadel for criminality, terrorism and child abuse could emerge. In order to reconcile the need for digital security and government investigatory capabilities, President Clinton introduced the key-escrow policy, whereby the state would provide citizens with powerful encryption software whilst retaining decryption capabilities. The key-escrow initiative ultimately failed - the determinant reason for its discontinuation is unknown. This literature gap is caused by the reluctance of Clinton administration officials to discuss the topic, and the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, which requires an unusual mixture of knowledge across diverse fields including computer science, politics, and history.

This thesis argues that industry objections were the determinant factor in key-escrow’s discontinuation. Whilst the emergence of non-commercial encryption, and constitutional challenges to the cryptography regulations were factors, they were comparatively inconsequential next to industry’s argument that key-escrow would curtail the global growth of US technology companies. This thesis will argue that key-escrow’s demise was a defining moment in the history of civil liberties. As the underlying issue of managing sometimes conflicting citizen rights in digital-age surveillance policy remains unsolved, this study will aid policy makers who now navigate this challenge. Closing this literature gap provides insights to today’s law makers that will help prevent them from emulating a technology governance policy that has already proved infeasible.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Martin, Keith M., Supervisor
  • Gibson, Dawn-Marie, Supervisor
Award date1 Feb 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 2021


  • crypto wars
  • cryptography
  • surveillance
  • cyber security
  • key-escrow
  • clipper
  • clipper chip
  • encryption
  • digital privacy
  • skipjack
  • clinton
  • craig jarvis

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