Documents made public by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden reveal that the National Security Agency (NSA) has thwarted or circumvented many of the privacy safeguards of the Internet as part of a highly classified program codenamed Bullrun.
“The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion,” stated The New York Times piece, a collaborative reporting endeavor between The New York Times, Britain’s Guardian newspaper and the nonprofit news website ProPublica.
“The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show,” the article continued.
The Times piece asserts that after the government lost a 1990s campaign to place a back door in all encryption software, it set out to achieve the same goal using a variety of covert tactics, codified in the top secret Bullrun program.
The agency built ultra-powerful supercomputers, customized for code breaking, and also established clandestine relationships with technology companies to insert secret access points in their products. Some of these (unnamed) companies, according to the report, say they were forced to cooperate, compelled by court orders and silenced by gag orders.
“For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies,” notes a 2010 memo describing the NSA activities to employees of its British equivalent, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. “Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”
Another financial-related memo provides further evidence still:
“We are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic,” wrote the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., in his budget request for the current year.
So does this mean that encryption software is pointless? This is definitely not the case, according to cryptography professionals interviewed by MIT Technology Review. The algorithms themselves are secure, and this fact is precisely why the NSA had to engage in workarounds such as obtaining master encryption keys and installing back door access.
“The whole leak has been an exercise in ‘I told you so,’ ” says Stephen Weis, CEO of server encryption company PrivateCore, who previously worked as a security expert at Google. “There doesn’t seem to be any kind of groundbreaking algorithmic breakthrough, but they are able to go after implementations and the human aspects of these systems.”
Snowden himself said that “properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things you can rely on.”
While the NSA used supercomputers to crack weaker encryption schemes, if it truly had the power to break higher-bit encryption, it would not have had to force companies to enable a peak behind the curtains.
After a careful analysis of the source documents used in the Times report, security expert Bruce Schneier wrote in the Guardian that people should still “trust the math” that undergirds cryptography.
Still, the Times report makes it clear that just because a communication is encrypted does not mean that it is secure. MIT Technology Review points out a few countermeasures, such as a technique called perfect forward in which keys aren’t reused. Several companies, including Google, have employed this approach.
As for the NSA’s use of supercomputers to break codes, this is not really news. Code-breaking has been part of the agency’s mission since it launched (secretly, natch) in 1952. “The problem,” according to The New York Times’ Nicole Perlroth, “is now it’s no longer targeted.” Instead of just honing in on the bad guys, the focus is on everyday communications.
As supercomputers become more powerful, they can break more complex codes. The most commonly used encryption, SSL, relies on the trusted RSA encryption algorithm with mathematical keys 1,024 bits long. Experts caution that longer keys are needed to guard against the code breaking resources of the government or a large business.
Tom Ritter, a cryptographer with iSec Partners, states that “RSA 1024 is entirely too weak to be used anywhere with any confidence in its security.”
Security professionals have been banging the drum for stronger security protocols, but companies have been slow to act. Facebook and Google, for example, just recently switched to a stronger encryption scheme.
With the Times report, now there is hard evidence where previously there were only strong suspicions. Companies can beef up their encryption, but that still leaves the other aspects of the revelations, the “behind-the-scenes persuasion,” the back doors and secret vulnerabilities.
On one side, intelligence agencies claim that deciphering encryption is crucial to counter-terrorism, while security experts, like Schneier argue that “cryptography forms the basis for trust online.”
“By deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to eavesdrop, the NSA is undermining the very fabric of the internet,” remarks Schneier.