Wednesday, September 11, 2013

CSE, NSA, and computer security standards

The New York Times recently reported (Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson & Scott Shane, "N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web," New York Times, 5 September 2013) that
The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age, according to newly disclosed documents.
Among other methods used by the agency,
the N.S.A. has been deliberately weakening the international encryption standards adopted by developers. One goal in the agency’s 2013 budget request was to “influence policies, standards and specifications for commercial public key technologies,” the most common encryption method.

Cryptographers have long suspected that the agency planted vulnerabilities in a standard adopted in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and later by the International Organization for Standardization, which has 163 countries as members.

Classified N.S.A. memos appear to confirm that the fatal weakness, discovered by two Microsoft cryptographers in 2007, was engineered by the agency. The N.S.A. wrote the standard and aggressively pushed it on the international group, privately calling the effort “a challenge in finesse.”

“Eventually, N.S.A. became the sole editor,” the memo says.
Yesterday, the Times provided more details of how the NSA pushed the flawed standard forward (Nicole Perlroth, "Government Announces Steps to Restore Confidence on Encryption Standards," New York Times, 10 September 2013):
Internal N.S.A. memos describe how the agency subsequently worked behind the scenes to push the same standard on the International Organization for Standardization. “The road to developing this standard was smooth once the journey began,” one memo noted. “However, beginning the journey was a challenge in finesse.”

At the time, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment ran the standards process for the international organization, but classified documents describe how ultimately the N.S.A. seized control. “After some behind-the-scenes finessing with the head of the Canadian national delegation and with C.S.E., the stage was set for N.S.A. to submit a rewrite of the draft,” the memo notes. “Eventually, N.S.A. became the sole editor.”
One possible interpretation of this passage is that the naive Canadians were pwned by the crafty NSA delegation, whose real goals were unknown to the Canadians.

I don't subscribe to that interpretation. Much more likely, in my view, is that CSE and the NSA worked hand-in-glove to game the standards process.

None of which, perhaps, should be surprising.

But it's a useful reminder that when, for example, CSE "presents" a computer security conference that features talks like "Bypassing Security Controls with Mobile Devices" and provides associated training events like "Bypassing Security Defenses – Secret Penetration Testing Techniques", its goal is not always to make your computers and communications devices more secure.

[Update 12 September 2013: Jesse Brown takes up the story and gets a non-denial from CSE: Jesse Brown, "NSA says it ‘finessed’ Canada, seizing control of global crypto,", 11 September 2013]


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