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!

TACC Helps ROSIE Bioscience Gateway Expand its Impact

April 26, 2017

Biomolecule structure prediction has long been challenging not least because the relevant software and workflows often require high-end HPC systems that many bioscience researchers lack easy access to. Read more…

By John Russell

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

IBM, Nvidia, Stone Ridge Claim Gas & Oil Simulation Record

April 25, 2017

IBM, Nvidia, and Stone Ridge Technology today reported setting the performance record for a “billion cell” oil and gas reservoir simulation. Read more…

By John Russell

ASC17 Makes Splash at Wuxi Supercomputing Center

April 24, 2017

A record-breaking twenty student teams plus scores of company representatives, media professionals, staff and student volunteers transformed a formerly empty hall inside the Wuxi Supercomputing Center into a bustling hub of HPC activity, kicking off day one of 2017 Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge (ASC17). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Remote Visualization Optimizing Life Sciences Operations and Care Delivery

As patients continually demand a better quality of care and increasingly complex workloads challenge healthcare organizations to innovate, investing in the right technologies is key to ensuring growth and success. Read more…

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of a new generation of chips designed specifically for deep learning workloads. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

Musk’s Latest Startup Eyes Brain-Computer Links

April 21, 2017

Elon Musk, the auto and space entrepreneur and severe critic of artificial intelligence, is forming a new venture that reportedly will seek to develop an interface between the human brain and computers. Read more…

By George Leopold

MIT Mathematician Spins Up 220,000-Core Google Compute Cluster

April 21, 2017

On Thursday, Google announced that MIT math professor and computational number theorist Andrew V. Sutherland had set a record for the largest Google Compute Engine (GCE) job. Sutherland ran the massive mathematics workload on 220,000 GCE cores using preemptible virtual machine instances. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

NERSC Cori Shows the World How Many-Cores for the Masses Works

April 21, 2017

As its mission, the high performance computing center for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, NERSC (the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center), supports a broad spectrum of forefront scientific research across diverse areas that includes climate, material science, chemistry, fusion energy, high-energy physics and many others. Read more…

By Rob Farber

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

ASC17 Makes Splash at Wuxi Supercomputing Center

April 24, 2017

A record-breaking twenty student teams plus scores of company representatives, media professionals, staff and student volunteers transformed a formerly empty hall inside the Wuxi Supercomputing Center into a bustling hub of HPC activity, kicking off day one of 2017 Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge (ASC17). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of a new generation of chips designed specifically for deep learning workloads. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

NERSC Cori Shows the World How Many-Cores for the Masses Works

April 21, 2017

As its mission, the high performance computing center for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, NERSC (the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center), supports a broad spectrum of forefront scientific research across diverse areas that includes climate, material science, chemistry, fusion energy, high-energy physics and many others. Read more…

By Rob Farber

Hyperion (IDC) Paints a Bullish Picture of HPC Future

April 20, 2017

Hyperion Research – formerly IDC’s HPC group – yesterday painted a fascinating and complicated portrait of the HPC community’s health and prospects at the HPC User Forum held in Albuquerque, NM. HPC sales are up and growing ($22 billion, all HPC segments, 2016). Read more…

By John Russell

Knights Landing Processor with Omni-Path Makes Cloud Debut

April 18, 2017

HPC cloud specialist Rescale is partnering with Intel and HPC resource provider R Systems to offer first-ever cloud access to Xeon Phi "Knights Landing" processors. The infrastructure is based on the 68-core Intel Knights Landing processor with integrated Omni-Path fabric (the 7250F Xeon Phi). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CERN openlab Explores New CPU/FPGA Processing Solutions

April 14, 2017

Through a CERN openlab project known as the ‘High-Throughput Computing Collaboration,’ researchers are investigating the use of various Intel technologies in data filtering and data acquisition systems. Read more…

By Linda Barney

DOE Supercomputer Achieves Record 45-Qubit Quantum Simulation

April 13, 2017

In order to simulate larger and larger quantum systems and usher in an age of “quantum supremacy,” researchers are stretching the limits of today’s most advanced supercomputers. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Pulls Back the Covers on Its First Machine Learning Chip

April 6, 2017

This week Google released a report detailing the design and performance characteristics of the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), its custom ASIC for the inference phase of neural networks (NN). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

For IBM/OpenPOWER: Success in 2017 = (Volume) Sales

January 11, 2017

To a large degree IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation have done what they said they would – assembling a substantial and growing ecosystem and bringing Power-based products to market, all in about three years. Read more…

By John Russell

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling was pretty much the exclusive realm of the Cray-2 and IBM mainframe class products. That’s changing. We are now seeing an emergence of x86 class server products with exotic plumbing technology ranging from Direct-to-Chip to servers and storage completely immersed in a dielectric fluid. Read more…

By Steve Campbell

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular offerings such as Caffe, Theano, and Torch. Read more…

By John Russell

Facebook Open Sources Caffe2; Nvidia, Intel Rush to Optimize

April 18, 2017

From its F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., today, Facebook announced Caffe2, a new open-source, cross-platform framework for deep learning. Caffe2 is the successor to Caffe, the deep learning framework developed by Berkeley AI Research and community contributors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

BioTeam’s Berman Charts 2017 HPC Trends in Life Sciences

January 4, 2017

Twenty years ago high performance computing was nearly absent from life sciences. Today it’s used throughout life sciences and biomedical research. Genomics and the data deluge from modern lab instruments are the main drivers, but so is the longer-term desire to perform predictive simulation in support of Precision Medicine (PM). There’s even a specialized life sciences supercomputer, ‘Anton’ from D.E. Shaw Research, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is standing up its second Anton 2 and actively soliciting project proposals. There’s a lot going on. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Startup Advances Auto-Parallelization’s Promise

January 23, 2017

The shift from single core to multicore hardware has made finding parallelism in codes more important than ever, but that hasn’t made the task of parallel programming any easier. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Technique Propels Deep Learning at Scale

February 21, 2017

Researchers from Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL) have adapted a well-known HPC communication technique to boost the speed and scale of their neural network training and now they are sharing their implementation with the larger deep learning community. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IDG to Be Bought by Chinese Investors; IDC to Spin Out HPC Group

January 19, 2017

US-based publishing and investment firm International Data Group, Inc. (IDG) will be acquired by a pair of Chinese investors, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co., Ltd. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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