Has the NSA broken our encryption?

Has the NSA broken our encryption?

Summary: Reports of new Edward Snowden leaks of NSA documents claim that "the agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption" on which we rely on the Internet. Are we defenseless now?


Reports in the Guardian and the New York Times claim that the NSA has cracked much of the encryption used on the Internet. Working in concert with their UK counterpart, the GCHQ, the NSA has used a variety of methods to gain access to data which should be unreadable by outsiders to the conversation. The basis for the reports are (of course) documents leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

The New York Times and ProPublica each received over 50,000 documents from the Guardian. "Intelligence officials" asked The Times not to report the story because "…it might prompt foreign targets to switch to new forms of encryption or communications that would be harder to collect or read." Times agreed to withhold some details, but ran the story because of the value of public debate. And it's hard to sympathize with the reasoning allegedly proffered by the intelligence officials.

Garden-variety crack

There's some truly disturbing news in this story, but other parts of it aren't particularly surprising. These reports are not technical papers and a lot of relevant detail is left out, so it's hard to tell in many cases what exactly is being asserted.

Most of the NSA encryption cracks reported in the story do not take any special advantage of their legal position. They are attempting to subvert systems of targets in order to get around cryptography. It's a truism of attacks on cryptography that they are generally attempts to get around the cryptography rather than to break it directly, and this sort of activity goes on all the time by malicious actors the world over.

How do they do it? The old-fashioned way, using malware, social engineering and exploiting vulnerabilities. Just today, WebSense published a report that said that huge percentages of users in enterprises are still running old, vulnerable versions of Java and Flash. Any script kiddie could take it from there; you don't need to be the NSA to attack those people.

If you practice cryptography, or even security more generally, you know that you have to assume you are under attack and to provide a layered defense against those attacks. If the NSA is using black hat methods to compromise intelligence targets that they are legally permitted to surveil, then there may be a legitimate complaint about the law, but it's also the case that the target could and should have done more to secure their systems.

Through the back door?

One story in The Times sounds unambiguously disturbing:

In one case, after the government learned that a foreign intelligence target had ordered new computer hardware, the American manufacturer agreed to insert a back door into the product before it was shipped, someone familiar with the request told The Times.

You can bet that US technology companies are unhappy with this report, which will likely cost them business. But perhaps it should. If true — and I wouldn't assume it is completely true — it appears to be beyond the scope of compliance required under the Patriot Act. But the story indicates that this was a "request" of the company and not an order. Too bad the company isn't identified, which means that all US companies are tarred by the story and face another challenge selling abroad.

In another case, The Times story makes old news sound more sinister than it probably is:

At Microsoft, as The Guardian has reported, the N.S.A. worked with company officials to get pre-encryption access to Microsoft’s most popular services, including Outlook e-mail, Skype Internet phone calls and chats, and SkyDrive, the company’s cloud storage service.

Microsoft asserted that it had merely complied with “lawful demands” of the government, and in some cases, the collaboration was clearly coerced. Executives who refuse to comply with secret court orders can face fines or jail time.

The wording of this passage gives the impression that Microsoft might be providing a back-door to the NSA to allow them to sniff traffic to these sites unimpeded by encryption, but the statement is also consistent with what we have known for a long time, even before the initial Snowden disclosures: Microsoft and every other company in the US sometimes receives FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court)-ordered requests for content belonging to specific individuals, and they comply with those orders by providing the unencrypted data to the government.

Microsoft stated very recently that they do not provide blanket back-door access to the government: "…we only respond to legal government demands, and we only comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers."

Many of you will, no doubt, wonder why we should take Microsoft at their word on this, but there's plenty of reason to do so. That same blog was written to announce Microsoft's motion in the FISC to allow the company to disclose information about the scope of their compliance with government requests and orders; a parallel motion was made by Google. Both companies do substantial business abroad and know that the credibility of their products is at stake.

This is one of those cases where a frequent criticism of large, multinational corporations — that they have no allegiance to their purported home countries — works to the individuals' benefit: Microsoft has obligations to their customers all over the world and wouldn't want to sacrifice those profitable relationships by cooperating with the US government any more than necessary.


Another story — once again not really news — describes a practice that Congress should make flat-out and unambiguously illegal: The NSA submitted to NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) a random number generation algorithm with a backdoor in it.

There's actually a technical term for this sort of vulnerability: Kleptography is the use of attacks built into a cryptographic system, i.e. a crypto backdoor. That's a great term.

The algorithm (Dual_EC_DRBG or Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator) was known as an NSA algorithm; being top experts in the field, the NSA had long been involved in cryptographic standardization. In 2007 the back-door was found and reported by Microsoft engineers. Those in the know quickly guessed that the NSA had tried to insert a back-door into the algorithm and the result was a clear loss of respect for and trust in the NSA in a field where they had made many positive contributions to the security of the US and its citizens. Great work guys.

Getting out of this mess

I'd like to think that a consensus is emerging among those not in the executive branch of the US government that more openness is necessary. Even if it hurts to admit that Snowden succeeded.

The first step is to allow US companies to disclose more about how they cooperate with the NSA and other US government agencies so that their customers can make informed trust decisions about them. Not to do this is to put US companies at a disadvantage they are legally prohibited from countering. Obviously, foreign competitors (from China perhaps) are no more inherently trustworthy, and that's all the more reason to be open about it: Let US companies say what their policies are and give aggregate data on their cooperation. Then make the point that this in fact makes them more trustworthy than competitors from other countries which are almost certainly under the same government pressures and which don't disclose the extent of it.

At bottom, we have to make a classic civil liberties trade-off here, to admit that being more open about our surveillance policies may make them less effective in some cases, but that we're willing to do that in order to preserve as much freedom as we can. That's the honest way to look at it.

The other big take-away from this story is that if you follow best practices, including using the latest protocols and updated software, you are very likely secure against attack both by criminals and the US government. With a valid warrant they may be able to get at you through cloud services, but they can't easily get at your own systems.

Topics: Security, Google, Government, Government US, Government UK, Microsoft

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  • thoughts

    "It's a truism of attacks on cryptography that they are generally attempts to get around the cryptography rather than to break it directly, and this sort of activity goes on all the time by malicious actors the world over."

    That much is true - often it's not the case that the encryption itself is broken, but rather that one of the endpoints, where the information has already been decrypted, has been compromised.

    "The first step is to allow US companies to disclose more about how they cooperate with the NSA and other US government agencies so that their customers can make informed trust decisions about them."

    I agree. Right now, what the NSA is doing is pretty lousy for PR and trust. Honestly, it's time to cut their budget and get them to seriously consider our freedoms.

    "At bottom, we have to make a classic civil liberties trade-off here"

    To be honest - I think the situation is notable by its *lack* of a trade-off here: All I get is the impression that the NSA is not making any trade-offs in favor of our freedom.

    If they are really making the tradeoff somewhere and working to preserve our freedom, I'd like to hear about it. Because nothing of what I've heard is saying that they're making that particular tradeoff.
    • *we* need to make that trade-off decision

      The NSA can't be trusted to make that decision of course. I meant that we, as a society (polity) need to make that decision. These things can be reined in by law if Congress is assertive enough.
      Larry Seltzer
    • cut their budget

      On the contrary, if they understand you do not trust them blindly anymore, their budget will be increased instead.
  • Playing devils' advocate

    What if I said that as a US citizen, in a democratic country like the US, that I believe that the US government is truly looking to protect us against bad guys. And that who I should be concerned about are the types of people in the US that are overly concerned about the US government seeing their email and internet traffic. People who use lavabit and TOR, etc. I mean, what are THEY up to? I don't think they are just patriots supporting the rights to privacy, etc.

    I understand being patrotic and the rights to privacy and standing up for that. But really, what are the US average joe privacy freaks so worried about. Well, I'm willing to bet most of them are up to no good, how about that? Its not cool to say why not let the government do surveillance on the internet, but I want to be protected.
    Sure, I understand the theoretical concern that the government sees something I wrote and misunderstands and thinks I'm going to bomb something and comes to my door to throw me in guantanamo. I'm really not that worried about that, to be honest. I worry about getting killed in a car crash today.

    Now, if you live in an authoritarian country, say north korea, then I can understand not wanting such a government to see the slightest suspicion that you are not loyal and come-a-knocking to send you to 20 years hard labor in a re-education camp, or executed.
    • Thoughts

      "People who use lavabit and TOR, etc. I mean, what are THEY up to?"

      Usually nothing - they just want their privacy to be respected. Some businesses may use it for exchanging sensitive information like trade secrets.

      "But really, what are the US average joe privacy freaks so worried about."

      Loss of basic rights.

      "Well, I'm willing to bet most of them are up to no good, how about that?"

      Innocent until proven guilty in this land. At least, that's the way it's supposed to be.

      "Sure, I understand the theoretical concern that the government sees something I wrote and misunderstands and thinks I'm going to bomb something and comes to my door to throw me in guantanamo. I'm really not that worried about that, to be honest."

      False positives could be a potential problem, however. The sheer amount of volume means mistakes are practically inevitable.

      "Now, if you live in an authoritarian country, say north korea . . . "

      Well, with this amount of information one could easily turn the USA from a democracy/republic into a totalitarian state.

      The last article in the former Groklaw (which was an excellent and award winning legal resource) offers some good information on why it is a very, very good idea to maintain privacy:


      " One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....

      The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....

      And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted."

      "Safe privacy is an important component of autonomy, freedom, and thus psychological well-being, in any society that values individuals. ... Summed up briefly, a statement of 'how not to dehumanize people' might read: Don't terrorize or humiliate. Don't starve, freeze, exhaust. Don't demean or impose degrading submission. Don't force separation from loved ones. Don't make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don't refuse to listen closely. Don't destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary."

      -- Janna Malamud Smith,"Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life"
    • Let me get this straight…

      I shouldn't worry about a government that sends guns to Mexico That up killing Americans- look up Fast and Furious. Despite it being against the law.

      I should trust a government that is against profiling (Don't search guys that look statistically like guys who are terrorists) but is perfectly okay with domestic spying, right? Okay, thanks for clearing that up.
      Luke Skywalker
      • Please

        Save your redneck/right wing delusions for a non-tech site.
        • He has valid points.

          I am generally against redneck/right wing delusions, but Luke hasn't said anything incorrect.

          Fast and Furious was a sting operation. It was botched, and if you sent arms to Mexico under any other condition, it would indeed be against the law.

          The gov is against racial profiling, so the TSA will pass a dark skinned bearded man in robes to be politically correct, but will frisk a cute co-ed who is obviously not hiding anything in those shorts and tank top. WTF?!

          And, they will gather and store metadata on yours, mine, and everyone's internet activities, cell phone calls, emails, txts, and anything else they can get their hands on. Why? I can only speculate, but my phone records are not going to help them catch a terrorist. How about yours?

          Sure, trolling is a good way to catch fish, but when I troll, I try to do it where I think the fish already are. What the NSA is doing is more like fishing with dynamite.
          • Racial Profiling is Useless

            Some people think that the TSA shpould limit themselves to dark-skinned men wearing robes or "headgear". The fact is, terrorists come in all shapes and colors and can even be little old ladies who "need the money" for their families. Or even children. Most Muslim men don't wear robes. They don't wear headgear. They don't wear turbans. White people are terrorists too. Maybe we should have them pay attention to white christian males since those are the ones who blew up a buildiung in Oklahoma.
  • What we need are some Judges with spine...

    The major loophole that the bad guys have found in our Constitution is that there is no enforcement clause. The Framers didn't have the concept that non-gentlemen would ever be allowed to lead. So, they put in purposeful limits but no good way to defend those limits except for the judiciary, whose member turn out to be reasonably easy to turn to sedition because they like getting invited to the best parties.
    Tony Burzio
    • It is Not a Case of Spine

      Anything in this country can be done with a subpoena. Almost anything. I know they can turn on your cell phone and listen in on surrounding conversations. There is no Right to Privacy that everyone thinks there is. The Fouth amendment is close buy not really. You have the right to be "secure in your home". What exactly does that mean? "Unreasonable searc and seizure". Define "unreasonable". All this means is that they need a good excuse and/or subpoena to do anything.

      But you know, I'd rather have the NSA pointing and laughing at my profile than some of these websites who are trying to sell the information and hand it over to advertisers.
  • It would seem . . .

    That the United States is "free" only in name these days. People say "Well look at China/North Corea/Iran, Islamic Republic of" and turn their nose to the critics.

    Do we really need to wait until the comparisons are more apt before "they" will acknowledge a problem exists? Is that really the right way to accomplish this?
  • Huh?

    you said:
    "we have to make a classic civil liberties trade-off..... in order to preserve as much freedom as we can."
    Huh? How do you define "Liberty" and Freedom".... I always assumed they were one of the same.
    Robert Parent
  • Next election....

    Ya know.... with the “war on terror” now in, what , it's 11th year and we only thwarted 54 terrorist plots, I am not feeling real safe... thats less than 5 per year. We need to get this war in high gear so it can function as it was planned. I have some ideas:
    Lets all vote en masse for the “Alexander/Clapper” ticket in 2016. A landslide vote would give them the mandate they need to get this going in the right direction. The first order of business after they are inaugurated would be the following:
    1) pass the “Patriot Act” as a constitutional amendment with explicit wording to allow it to supersede any other amendment, or the constitution itself, if needed. To make this amendment as transparent as possible it should have a disclaimer (in micro-print) that states “we reserve the right to interpret this law, and all other laws, as we see fit without prior notice”... (of course with more legalese than suggested here).
    2) Squash these “homegrown terrorist” that would snuff out your entire family in the blink of an eye by giving the ATF the ability to hire.... say, 1 million Democrats to go house-to-house and confiscate weapons.
    3) The confiscated weapons (especially the assault rifles) should be given to local police forces to arm them to the teeth,... just in case!! ...Of course the donated weapons couldnt be used against innocent citizens, only “targets” as defined by the “Patriot Act Amendment” (see above).
    It makes me feel safer just thinking about it! We should be able to go from less than 5 thwarted terrorist plot per year to maybe over, say 2,776 in the first year alone.
    Robert Parent
    • Patriot Act

      I think it already exceeds anything in the constitution.
  • Which encryption?

    Encryption can be link-level, storage-level or file-level.

    Yes, the NSA can go after the first two because data can be accessed server-side through cloud providers who conveniently accumulate all their users' data. But no, they can't go after the third, as client-side file-level encryption/decryption is user controlled on their end device, making it impractical (if not illegal) for the NSA to go after every single end-user individually.

    Link encryption (SSL/TLS) can be side-stepped because it only protects the link. The encryption only lasts a few seconds while the data is in transit. And since the server-side application reading the link gets the data unencrypted, the NSA can simply demand it from the cloud provider. (Note: not a problem if the data is file-level encrypted by the end-user.)

    Similarly, storage encryption can be side-stepped because it only protects the data centre disks. The keys are with the cloud provider so all the NSA has to do is demand the keys. Or, since the server application reading data off the disk gets it unencrypted, the NSA can just demand the data from the cloud provider anyway. (Note: not a problem if the data is file-level encrypted by the end user.)

    On the other hand, file-level encryption is tough to side-step as users generate their own keys and encrypt their own data client-side. So data remains protected user-to-user in a tamper-proof package regardless of what link it travels over, or which provider handles it, or where the storage is. This is what makes user-controlled file-level encryption so powerful.

    So encryption is *not* broken if users want to share their data using their own client-side file-level encryption and client-side key management.

    Further, if you want the strongest security and total privacy, make sure you choose a cloud sharing provider with non-US technology and who can guarantee they absolutely can't access user's data, ever. By way of example, the NSA is pretty stuffed with Lockbox (www.lock-box.com) - no server-side keys (they are all client-side), no cipher-text (users can store their data in any S3 server worldwide) and no way to influence the application (which comes out of Australia).
    • The Problem Here

      Well, I've always said that if you, yourself, encrypt you data before sending it to the Cloud then, for many things, you can use the cloud. If you rely on no encryption or encryption where the keys are held by the provider, then you are asking for trouble. Cloud providers can and have already been hacked and data exposed. But, where most public providers have the right to read and do anything they want with your uploads, just sending confidential information (like all of your family's financials, SSNs, credit cards, expiration dates, etc.) to the cloud is a security violation in itself. One providers says that everything you upload is scanned electronically and many are read by real humans. Imagine if the reader is some poor person making minimum wage in some foreign country. The issue I think we are going through is, even if you DO encrypt your own stuff, the NSA has the tools to decrypt it anyway.
  • The power of the powerless......

    One of the options of someone working for the NSA or any other similar agency in a world where governments are sold to corporate entities and therefore lack any integrity whatsoever is to send information, data, passwords, etc. to a foreign government anonymously; as opposed to the celebrity syndrome of sending it to the media complete with name and address.

    As per 911, bad guys will do whatever they do even though the government knows about it because the corporations don't give a damn about casualties.

    Death means money, whether its mopping up after a natural disaster, an unnatural disaster, or war, especially war, its all about how many shekels you make.