NSA’s ‘Secret War on Encryption’ Exposed

By Tiffany Trader

September 9, 2013

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.

Related Items

NSA Expands Academic Cyber Initiative

DOE Supercomputer Hack Results in Guilty Plea

Blue Waters: Security at Scale

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

AI-Focused ‘Genius’ Supercomputer Installed at KU Leuven

April 24, 2018

Hewlett Packard Enterprise has deployed a new approximately half-petaflops supercomputer, named Genius, at Flemish research university KU Leuven. The system is built to run artificial intelligence (AI) workloads and, as Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Exascale System for Earth Simulation Introduced

April 23, 2018

After four years of development, the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM) will be unveiled today and released to the broader scientific community this month. The E3SM project is supported by the Department of Energy Read more…

By Staff

RSC Reports 500Tflops, Hot Water Cooled System Deployed at JINR

April 18, 2018

RSC, developer of supercomputers and advanced HPC systems based in Russia, today reported deployment of “the world's first 100% ‘hot water’ liquid cooled supercomputer” at Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JI Read more…

By Staff

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Hybrid HPC is Speeding Time to Insight and Revolutionizing Medicine

High performance computing (HPC) is a key driver of success in many verticals today, and health and life science industries are extensively leveraging these capabilities. Read more…

New Device Spots Quantum Particle ‘Fingerprint’

April 18, 2018

Majorana particles have been observed by university researchers employing a device consisting of layers of magnetic insulators on a superconducting material. The advance opens the door to controlling the elusive particle Read more…

By George Leopold

AI-Focused ‘Genius’ Supercomputer Installed at KU Leuven

April 24, 2018

Hewlett Packard Enterprise has deployed a new approximately half-petaflops supercomputer, named Genius, at Flemish research university KU Leuven. The system is Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Cray Rolls Out AMD-Based CS500; More to Follow?

April 18, 2018

Cray was the latest OEM to bring AMD back into the fold with introduction today of a CS500 option based on AMD’s Epyc processor line. The move follows Cray’ Read more…

By John Russell

IBM: Software Ecosystem for OpenPOWER is Ready for Prime Time

April 16, 2018

With key pieces of the IBM/OpenPOWER versus Intel/x86 gambit settling into place – e.g., the arrival of Power9 chips and Power9-based systems, hyperscaler sup Read more…

By John Russell

US Plans $1.8 Billion Spend on DOE Exascale Supercomputing

April 11, 2018

On Monday, the United States Department of Energy announced its intention to procure up to three exascale supercomputers at a cost of up to $1.8 billion with th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Cloud-Readiness and Looking Beyond Application Scaling

April 11, 2018

There are two aspects to consider when determining if an application is suitable for running in the cloud. The first, which we will discuss here under the title Read more…

By Chris Downing

Transitioning from Big Data to Discovery: Data Management as a Keystone Analytics Strategy

April 9, 2018

The past 10-15 years has seen a stark rise in the density, size, and diversity of scientific data being generated in every scientific discipline in the world. Key among the sciences has been the explosion of laboratory technologies that generate large amounts of data in life-sciences and healthcare research. Large amounts of data are now being stored in very large storage name spaces, with little to no organization and a general unease about how to approach analyzing it. Read more…

By Ari Berman, BioTeam, Inc.

IBM Expands Quantum Computing Network

April 5, 2018

IBM is positioning itself as a first mover in establishing the era of commercial quantum computing. The company believes in order for quantum to work, taming qu Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

FY18 Budget & CORAL-2 – Exascale USA Continues to Move Ahead

April 2, 2018

It was not pretty. However, despite some twists and turns, the federal government’s Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18) budget is complete and ended with some very positi Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

Inventor Claims to Have Solved Floating Point Error Problem

January 17, 2018

"The decades-old floating point error problem has been solved," proclaims a press release from inventor Alan Jorgensen. The computer scientist has filed for and Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Researchers Measure Impact of ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Patches on HPC Workloads

January 17, 2018

Computer scientists from the Center for Computational Research, State University of New York (SUNY), University at Buffalo have examined the effect of Meltdown Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

How the Cloud Is Falling Short for HPC

March 15, 2018

The last couple of years have seen cloud computing gradually build some legitimacy within the HPC world, but still the HPC industry lies far behind enterprise I Read more…

By Chris Downing

Russian Nuclear Engineers Caught Cryptomining on Lab Supercomputer

February 12, 2018

Nuclear scientists working at the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (RFNC-VNIIEF) have been arrested for using lab supercomputing resources to mine crypto-currency, according to a report in Russia’s Interfax News Agency. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Chip Flaws ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Loom Large

January 4, 2018

The HPC and wider tech community have been abuzz this week over the discovery of critical design flaws that impact virtually all contemporary microprocessors. T Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

How Meltdown and Spectre Patches Will Affect HPC Workloads

January 10, 2018

There have been claims that the fixes for the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities, named the KPTI (aka KAISER) patches, are going to affect applicatio Read more…

By Rosemary Francis

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Deep Learning at 15 PFlops Enables Training for Extreme Weather Identification at Scale

March 19, 2018

Petaflop per second deep learning training performance on the NERSC (National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center) Cori supercomputer has given climate Read more…

By Rob Farber

Leading Solution Providers

Lenovo Unveils Warm Water Cooled ThinkSystem SD650 in Rampup to LRZ Install

February 22, 2018

This week Lenovo took the wraps off the ThinkSystem SD650 high-density server with third-generation direct water cooling technology developed in tandem with par Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fast Forward: Five HPC Predictions for 2018

December 21, 2017

What’s on your list of high (and low) lights for 2017? Volta 100’s arrival on the heels of the P100? Appearance, albeit late in the year, of IBM’s Power9? Read more…

By John Russell

AI Cloud Competition Heats Up: Google’s TPUs, Amazon Building AI Chip

February 12, 2018

Competition in the white hot AI (and public cloud) market pits Google against Amazon this week, with Google offering AI hardware on its cloud platform intended Read more…

By Doug Black

HPC and AI – Two Communities Same Future

January 25, 2018

According to Al Gara (Intel Fellow, Data Center Group), high performance computing and artificial intelligence will increasingly intertwine as we transition to Read more…

By Rob Farber

US Plans $1.8 Billion Spend on DOE Exascale Supercomputing

April 11, 2018

On Monday, the United States Department of Energy announced its intention to procure up to three exascale supercomputers at a cost of up to $1.8 billion with th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Blueprint for Converging HPC, Big Data

January 18, 2018

After five annual workshops on Big Data and Extreme-Scale Computing (BDEC), a group of international HPC heavyweights including Jack Dongarra (University of Te Read more…

By John Russell

Momentum Builds for US Exascale

January 9, 2018

2018 looks to be a great year for the U.S. exascale program. The last several months of 2017 revealed a number of important developments that help put the U.S. Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

Google Chases Quantum Supremacy with 72-Qubit Processor

March 7, 2018

Google pulled ahead of the pack this week in the race toward "quantum supremacy," with the introduction of a new 72-qubit quantum processor called Bristlecone. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This