FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The NSA Paid to Steal Your Private Data

by ALFREDO LOPEZ

As the people of this country, and much of the world, observe the year-end holidays, we can look back on 2013 as the year when any illusion of genuine democracy was dashed by the remarkable revelations about the police-state surveillance that watches us. Last week, we saw a deeply disturbing stroke added to that incrementally developing picture.

In the ever-expanding and groan-provoking saga of the NSA’s attack on our privacy, it was revealed that the agency paid a major Internet security firm to insert a flawed encryption formula into the company’s software. The news, sparked by leaks from Edward Snowden andfirst reported by Reuters [1], raises serious questions about the security of popular encryption programs and indicates that the U.S. government was consciously involved in massive and very destructive fraud.

The revelations indicate that the NSA paid $10 million to RSA, one of the most prominent encrytion software companies in the world, to include the NSA’s own encryption formula in a very popular and heavily used encryption product called “Bsafe”. While Bsafe offers several encryption options, the default option (the one you use if you don’t specifically choose any) is the NSA’s own code.

The massive attack on encryption by the NSA has been reported before but this recent revelations about payments made demonstrate an intentionality to defraud and a complete disregard for the law, honesty and people’s rights. RSA offered a partial and fairly weak statement[2] of defense. The NSA has yet to comment.

“Encryption” is a computerized function, ubiquitous on the Internet, that scrambles data so it can’t be read unless the reader has a “key”, a small piece of computer code that the encryption program uses to “decrypt” the data and render it readable. Some of us use it to encrypt email, do Internet chat or voice-over-IP communications (an Internet telephone protocol). Most of us have probably used it to send data like credit card numbers when we purchase something. It’s the thing that makes private communications on the Internet private.

Nothing revealed indicates that encryption itself doesn’t work. In fact, the NSA’s attack on encryption is proof of strong encryption’s usefulness and security. The agency didn’t “crack” encryption; it apparently can’t. Rather it developed its own, faulty encryption code that allowed it to read data encrypted using that code. Then it paid RSA to use that code in its products. To understand how this works, we have to understand RSA standard encryption.

The fact that it’s called RSA encryption shows how prominent the products of this company are. RSA encryption uses a two-key system. When you start working with the encryption program, it generates your public key (a string of numbers and letters) and an accompanying “private key”. You let everyone know your public key; mine is on my business card. You *never* let anyone know your private key.

If I want to send you an encrypted message, I get your public key and use software that will encrypt the data using that key — encryption software lets me keep a library of people’s public keys so it can do the encryption automatically. You receive what I sent and then apply your private key (which is stored on your server or computer) to decrypt the data and read it. All of this happens in seconds and it is absolutely foolproof — unless, of course, the company that made the software uses a key generating method that allows it to decrypt the message without having anyone’s private key.

It’s like building door locks that can all be opened with a special key. That’s what the NSA designed and it paid RSA to include that “backdoor” in its software and offer that version of the encryption scheme as the default on its Bsafe programs.

What’s disturbing is that millions of computers use Bsafe (and many more use some RSA-based encryption method). What is even more disturbing is that many of the programs that use “Bsafe” are for Androids and other cell phones: devices rapidly becoming the information device of choice for many people all over the world. But what’s most disturbing is that this piece of technological flim-flam may not be limited to Bsafe or even to RSA programs. Other companies that build widely-used encryption include Symantec, McAfee, and Microsoft and experts now suspect the NSA may have bribed them as well.

“You think they only bribed one company in the history of their operations?” asked Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s premier information security experts [3]. “What’s at play here is that we don’t know who’s involved. You have no idea who else was bribed, so you don’t know who else you can trust.”

The NSA has frequently said its only purpose in data capture and analysis is to catch criminals and terrorists. Most Americans would consider that a legitimate, even laudatory, goal of law enforcement. But when you capture information on everyone to catch the criminal, law enforcement is operating like a police state. Captured information is usually stored and having information on everyone’s communications is against the law and there’s a reason for that. When a government decides that legal activity you’re involved in is now illegal, it can use that data to repress that activity and the history of governments is that they will frequently declare illegal such activities as organizing against their policies.

That’s why the Constitution stricty forbids this type of data gathering under the First and Fourth amendments: the states that united to approve the constitution didn’t trust a central government with the power to intrusively and massively gather information on its citizens.

The use of encryption means that the intent of the data exchange, particularly with email, is to be private. People speak to each other in privacy all the time and nobody would argue that a private communication means that there is illegal activity. Moreover, privacy is our right and why we go private is not the business of anyone but the people we are speaking with privately. It’s certainly not the government’s business. In fact, this concept of “privacy” has long been a pillar of Internet communications which is why encryption programs are so popular on-line.

But this a step beyond the “capture all information” programs the NSA has admitted to and been sharply criticized for: the subject of therecent report by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies [4] that found that the NSA had “over-stepped” its mandate and rights.

Devising a fraudulent system of encryption, building a back-door into it and then paying companies to offer this to the public as a fool-proof, default assurance of privacy is hardly over-stepping. It’s a conscious, cynical, fraudulent and extremely dangerous attack on the principle of Internet privacy, reflecting our government’s complete disdain for our rights.

It also demonstrates the dangers of relying on corporate-developed encryption when there are several free and open source alternatives costing nothing and involving the work of developers whose only purpose is their commitment to a free Internet. Brad Chacos of PC Worldwrote an article last September [5] with several excellent suggestions but finding solutions is really a matter of doing Internet searches for this. Using those solutions now becomes not a choice but a necessity.

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rivera Sun
Nonviolent History: South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Boycott
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail