With a little help from supercomputers, court orders, arm twisting, and technical prowess, the National Security Agency (NSA) can beat your encryption. So says a report from the New York Times.
Specifically, the paper reports that secret documents show that the NSA 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.
"Two decades ago, officials grew concerned about the spread of strong encryption software like Pretty Good Privacy, designed by a programmer named Phil Zimmermann," Times' reporters Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane wrote in the article they penned together. "The Clinton administration fought back by proposing the Clipper Chip, which would have effectively neutered digital encryption by ensuring that the NSA always had the key."
Focusing in Network Layer
For insight into the headlines, we turned to Kevin O'Brien, an enterprise solution architect at CloudLock. He told us the lesson here is that the network layer is the principle means of access for the NSA, through its backdoor arrangements to capture data as it flows through various providers' systems.
"In analyzing that data, much of which is encrypted on the wire, their approach is to exploit systemic vulnerabilities rather than attempting brute-force attacks on the encryption keys themselves," O'Brien said.
"Calling these approaches 'groundbreaking analytic capabilities' is a stretch: dictionary attacks on poorly chosen passwords, well-known vulnerabilities in insecure protocols, and other recognized vectors of encryption breaking are not new," he said. "The scale and scope of these attacks by the NSA are noteworthy, however."
Troubling Secret Arrangements
But here is what's more trouble to O'Brien: There appears to be secret arrangements with platform providers. In other words, the NSA is apparently exerting pressure for software companies to design in mechanisms through which the NSA's monitoring network can gain access to data, presumably post-decryption, removing the need to crack the algorithms being used.
"While the full scope of what constitutes 'groundbreaking' is not known, it's probably safe to assume that the NSA is taking advantages of these mechanisms -- likely built-in flaws in random number generators, or software backdoors that externalize data during decryption -- to simply bypass strong cryptography," O'Brien said.
If anything, he noted, this new set of revelations should be starting a conversation around just what constitutes strong cryptography, and how to implement it securely. As he sees it, part of that entails using open standard algorithms from reputable organizations, and avoiding vendor-locked encryption that is susceptible to NSA influence.
"Similarly, making it more difficult to be a target for network-level access is important, as it increases the cost and challenge for the NSA -- or any other interested party -- to obtain the encrypted stream of data in the first place," O'Brien said. "One of the first principles in network and signal security is that defense-in-depth works, the maxim holds true even in light of revealed weaknesses in one layer of -- what should be -- a sophisticated data privacy strategy."