Don't get me wrong, it's entirely inappropriate for an American government agency to be subverting the security of American products made by American companies and used by the American public. We have a unique opportunity that no other country has to coordinate our secret intelligence work with the private sector to completely own the security industry, but we allow our government to take an adversarial approach to defense. It's insane and criminal, but that's how it is.
Imagine how effective an intelligence campaign would be against, say, Iran, if the NSA went to Microsoft, disclosed a vuln, and then told them to patch the vuln ONLY in specific markets. Roll out the patch to American companies first, but leave select targets still vulnerable. No other country could get Microsoft to do that except the United States... And we waste that opportunity by trying to lone-wolf everything.
While that approach might be effective, the long-term result could be increased distrust of American software companies by other countries, depending on how it's done.
I think the primary problems are structural: that (a) a single agency has to act as both red and blue teams, (b) the red team lacks enough oversight to ensure it respects rule of law and civilian civil rights, and (c) the blue team isn't authorized to disclose all its known vulnerabilities to software vendors.
America isn't Australia. The NSA hoards bugs in software domestic and foreign alike.
One amendment to their charter which might make sense would be installing a public ombudsman. This ombudsman reviews the NSA's vulnerability hoard, takes into account the software's usage in the United States and then makes arguments to senior leadership for selectively releasing them.
I would specifically call out Treasury (high dependence of financial sector on publicly available products), OMB (high dependence of government systems on publicly available products), and Commerce (most direct purview of publicly available products) in playing that role.
The status quo of a semi-adversarial relationship between the NSA and tech companies for offensive cyber capabilities seems better to me for both parties. Of course it would be good if they were collaborating on defensive cyber security.
I thought everybody already knew that US corporations serve as an extension to the surveillance apparatus. Remember all the corporations fighting against the government's mandate at an artificially crippled maximum keysize of 40 bits, in order to allow continued surveillance in the 90s? Yeah, neither do I.
Interpreting _NSAKEY as an NSA backdoor is similarly naive. First, it's named _NSAKEY. Surely they could name it something else. Second, its purpose was reverse-engineered, and it's capable of signing cryptography modules, same as the existing Microsoft key named _KEY. Anything that could be done through _NSAKEY could also be done through _KEY, so it would be easy for the NSA to just ask for a copy of _KEY such that nobody would notice. The conspiracy theory makes no sense - it's like saying "$politician is trying to take away our freedoms by pouring mind-control agents into the water" when $politician is just straight-up signing bills to take away your freedoms.
I'll tell you what it looks like to me:
After the debug symbol is found, Microsoft gives a seemingly very stupid explanation for it: "It is a backup key. Yeah, uhhhh... during the export control review - the NSA said that we had to have a backup key, so we named it after them..." After being challenged on the plausibility of their backup scheme they refuse to provide any further explanation.
Here is the funny part: Microsoft might be technically telling the truth about it being a "backup". Consider what else was going on around this period: ridiculous export controls on key-length, the clipper chip... and finally: government managed private-key escrow. At that time the export regulations did not specify a backup requirement, and yet Microsoft claims otherwise. You know who else was talking a lot about backups? The Whitehouse, in its proposal for allowing the export of key-lengths above 56-bits - so long as applicants implement "key-recovery". Somehow I don't think that we share the same definition of the word "backup".
Also, ECI Sentry Raven, have fun with that.
Evidence of X does not include "X would have been done by Y, and Y did Z, and X and Z are both bad, so why wouldn't Y do X too." That is basically the definition of an ad hominem argument. Whatever else the NSA may have done, and however much it's reason to believe the NSA might have wanted to do this specific thing, it's not evidence of them doing this specific thing (and again I'm not sure what this specific thing is even supposed to be). And if anything, the lack of mention of NSAKEY in the leaks is a reason to believe that there wasn't anything there.
Evidence of X also does not include "Y refused to talk about X." That might be evidence that Y is suspicious and untrustworthy (or evidence that the person asking was a conspiracy theorist who wouldn't be satisfied by any explanation), but it's not evidence that Y actually did X.
So, that's my definition of evidence. I'll turn this around: what would evidence that NSAKEY was not a backdoor look like to you? Would anything convince you, or is your claim unfalsifiable?
It would only work one way with an API relying on a PKI with a single CA, zero transparency, and trusted keys named after spy agencies suddenly appearing out of nowhere. I'm gonna bail here, because I'm now not sure if you honestly don't know what the CAPI was in relation to the NSAKEY - or if you're trying to waste my time by getting me to explain the most basic principles of public key infrastructure.
You are wrong on the facts that there is a "single CA" - there is _KEY in addition to _NSAKEY.
So, this brings me back to the point I mentioned at the top of the thread: why didn't the NSA just demand a copy of the private key for _KEY instead of a separate key? A separate key always carried a risk, and also required a rebuild - handing over _KEY could have happened immediately. If _NSAKEY has special permissions, can you point me to where in disassembled CAPI code / leaked source these special permissions are implemented, and what they are?
Your conspiracy theory is "The NSA is evil and also stupid." This is a more complex and less likely, and less worrisome conspiracy theory than "The NSA is evil." If the only thing we have to worry about from the NSA is things bungled as badly as this alleged _NSAKEY backdoor and the actual Dual_EC_DRBG backdoor (which was noticed by cryptographers basically instantly), we have nothing to worry about. That doesn't seem like the rhetorical position you want to take.
How would the signed payload to activate this backdoor be delivered? Where’s the code that receives it? Where’s the code that then processes that signed payload?
It’s not like this stuff is terribly hard to reverse, you’ll almost certainly be able to easily find all the symbols and probably even leaked source on various NT-related forums.
Your comparison is out of line because of ridiculous characterizations like this. Microsoft said that it was a backup key, which either means that they have the most poorly implemented scheme for backing up cryptographic materials ever devised, or they don't mean what most people think when they hear the word "backup". Microsoft then claimed that the backup was necessary for passing the export control review, which is a bold lie to tell since the Export Administration Regulations are available for review to everybody. One thing not included in the EAR that might influence Microsoft's conduct in trying to get permission from the USG to reach global customers: executive orders. The government had a hard limit at 56-bits and was proposing that anybody wanting to export crypto beyond that needed to participate in their push for private-key escrow, which they were calling "key-recovery". Recovery... sounds kind of like a backup plan...
I provided links in my response to the parent comment.
At the very least, retract your claim about how people who don't want fluoride in the water are "loons," and then maybe we can have a good-faith conversation. But if you want to dismiss people with actual science backing their views as loons, I'll dismiss you as a loon, too.
The fact that foreign governments aren't more skeptical of Microsoft really baffles me. The American government isn't dumb enough to buy security products from Kapersky after all, or devices from Huawei.
Windows is still closed source. Therefore there is a lot of speculation around the phone home capabilities.
To pull of what they did, they knew multiple zero-day vulernabilities in Windows. To any reasonable security-minded person, knowing that many vulnerabilities and having the ability to capitalize on them is likely only achievable a few different ways, one of those ways being having an arrangement with the company whose vulnerabilities you were exploiting.
I would. However, I'm in no position to deny that I need Microsoft's products. Assuming I'm Iran, I'm not going to convert my entire digital infrastructure away from the status quo. I literally won't be able too anyway.
Now if I'm America and we're talking about Huawei undermining my customers.... Yeah I don't have to put up with that and Huawei will lose. I don't care, I've got Samsung and Apple. So I see your point, but you're misrepresenting the scale.
I would pay for tickets to the hacker news thread if that ever actually went down
There were stories that US power plants could be made inoperable. Also how do you really monitor bad actors using those vulnerabilities to do other kinds of damages?
To me it doesn't seem cyber weapons are that easy to use, they're volatile, secret, can be fired very quickly without sound, and are very difficult to control.
So far one could say the security market was not big enough, and computers not widespread enough, so it was tolerable to let the 0day market open as long as the US has the upper hand, but as this market goes bigger, damages are going to show up more and more.
Having the upper hand in term of cyber warfare is one thing, but I have a problem with what the cyber warfare terminology. I'd rather live in a world where weapon trafficking is neutered, instead of a world where bandits can cause damages (small, but still damage).
I think the day is coming where higher security standards will be required by law, because the swiss cheese strategy won't work for long.
Also, I have doubts that the NSA can really keep the upper hand because they have more brainpower. The cyber warfare is not only the sum of the weapons, because anybody can be taught computer security and learn how to build weapons.
What happens when those zero days are leaked or stolen?
The government couldn't even protect nuclear secrets.
At least with nukes, it's difficult to obtain the fissile material. Even the poorest, smalled, most isolated countries can utilize stolen or leaked 0-days, and depending on how they're used they could kill more people than a nuclear bomb. (Eg: shut off the power to the Midwest during winter)
Not very. Do you think Iran doesn't have a Windows VM somewhere within the US and is also incapable of reverse-engineering patches?
The cyber warfare scare is just a false reiteration to fortify arguments for further military and intelligence arming.
> It's insane and criminal, but that's how it is.
Just insane and criminal in my opinion because these institutions are not beyond reproach.
Where would you draw the line?
I suppose in a perfect world, we'd all melt down all of our guns and turn them into wrenches or something instead and all live in harmony. But we don't live in that world. In the real world, if you melt down all of your guns, someone else will keep theirs, and use them to take your stuff, because you can't hurt them anymore. And similarly, if you disclose and patch all of your zerodays, someone else will still have their own, and will use them to hack your stuff and cause you damage, and you'll have no way to fight back, except to break out the guns and start a hot war with them.
We're still learning how things work in the cyber-war realm, but I feel doubtful that it'll ever be possible to have defenses so good that you can rely on the fact that nobody can touch you.
This will have ugly consequences.
I'm not a supporter of this but I do believe there is a genuine, good faith act here.
No, they aren't. The NSA shares many secrets with allies.
Wait, did he just use Wannacry as a reason for more NSA involvement in cyber defense? Wannacry exists because of the NSA. Its exploitation tools leaked (as it always happens, even to the NSA or the Chinese spy agencies) and then others used them to create the highly-effective Wannacry.
So...thanks, but no thanks NSA! You're done enough already. Not to mention the fact that the NSA is actively trying to this day to sabotage security efforts both in standards bodies and in private organizations (see recent Simon and Speck controversy, or how they asked Yahoo to put a backdoor in their email servers, Dual_EC scandal, etc).
Now we're left playing catch-up, and the NSA is mostly known for cyber espionage against global adversaries and domestic surveillance.
There seems to be little doubt - as you point out - that the NSA has also abused their mandate a bit by spying on Americans.
The largest share of the data they collect is about Americans. This is done without legitimate, meaningful oversight or probable cause. Most of their measurable activity is illegal and violates the rights of Americans. The difference between data collection in the PRC and in the USA is that the USA hasn't extensively acted on this information against its own citizens so far.
This overall tone and emphasis is similar to hand-waving away mass police brutality and oppression by saying "buuuuut they keep us safe".
Could you provide a citation on this?
> Most of their measurable activity is illegal and violates the rights of Americans.
This is a useless metric: it's true of both healthy and unhealthy spy agencies; the former because we wouldn't hear about the useful and legal things they do, only the occasional whistleblowing, while the latter because of the point you're trying to make. (I also disagree it's true.)
However, without a solid metric on their total classified activity, there's no way to determine if it's unhealthy or healthy.
Let's not pretend the NSA is fighting a war on terror. It's an economic espionage machine, and an assault on the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. The same constitution many men died to protect and uphold.
If honor, country, and integrity mean anything to employees of the NSA, they should perform their civic duty and do as the patriot Edward Snowden has done.
This seems to be completely unfounded, and out of line with my experience of the people who work there.
> they should perform their civic duty and do as the patriot Edward Snowden has done.
The truth is that you and I are part of a minority in the country: most people are actually vaguely okay with the idea of the government spy agency trawling through domestic networks looking for people trying to attack the US.
The NSA has owned the globe on a shoe string budget in response to a civic outcry about two decades back. They did their duty, as the people of the nation asked them to.
Now, you can argue that it was a poor national strategy -- that it's going to lead to a civic-society corrupting influence, and problems like parallel construction. But it's a bold allegation that people didn't do their duty because they struck a hard compromise that the majority approved of, but you personally don't.
I wouldn't describe anyone who leaked legal spy programs or who took a laptop full of classified secrets to both China and Russia a patriot.
There were technical means by which Snowden could have better secured the materials, and there's the simple fact that he leaked a lot of perfectly legal military spy programs to the entire world, intentionally.
I'd certainly describe Snowden as an idealist, but he's not particularly a patriot.
As you may infer from current headlines - "The president told me to do it" is not exactly legal justification. We're a nation of checks and balances. If domestic spying is what the people wants then congress needs to act on that. For people intelligent enough to "own the globe" I don't see what's so confusing about this.
Bypassing the cornerstone of our democracy is not a heroic act. Spying on Americans by routing traffic through five-eyes is not clever or heroic. It's incredibly dangerous and represents an existential threat to our democracy. You can't even begin to imagine how blackmail will be used to silently and invisibly form the political landscape for the next 50 years.
Maybe Snowden isn't a patriot - but the NSA is a traitor to the American public.
And they have, repeatedly.
For all their bluster, the legislation that they've passed immunized the corporations who participated, left standing the punishment against Qwest (who didn't), and created new avenues to collect information in secret.
They held no one from either the Bush or Obama administrations, both of whom supported such programs, to account.
Congress did approve, modulo some theatrics, the actions of those administrations, because it's what people, that is, their constituents wanted.
> NSA is a traitor to the American public.
This kind of rhetoric when people didn't do what you personally wanted, but which much of the public did, isn't helpful and is a large portion of why the current politics are so toxic.
As far as anyone has been able to document, the NSA largely spends their time fighting terrorist organizations and hacking other nation-states -- doing things that legitimately keep safe Americans, in a world that isn't all that nice of a place.
It's trite to snipe at how the guards do their job, safe under their watch and without anything at risk -- particularly when you're also safely the minority, so don't run the risk of your opinions being put into action.
> can't even begin to imagine how blackmail will be used to silently and invisibly form the political landscape for the next 50 years
Good, I'm tired of lizard people.
Also, "Hoover-esque" comes to mind. Of course, the real danger for your conspiracy is the private consultancies and large corporations, which have considerably better access to information and substantially more sophisticated systems.
I'm personally considerably less worried about the NSA (or other government) archives and systems than the privateer ones, particularly in the age of rogue billionaires with aspirations of nation building -- to the point I'm willing to risk it to enable the nation to defend itself from, eg, another 2016-style PSYOP campaign.
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Waving your hands and mouthing the word "Snowden" doesn't support just any defamatory statement you want to make about the government spy agencies -- and making up allegations cheapens the legitimate charges against them.
Scroll down to "United States", click on the reference links next to each illegal domestic surveillance programs. If the link yields another wiki page, keep clicking on the reference links util you find the relevant documents.
Neither snark nor a Wiki labyrinth are a specific citation for what you said: "The largest share of the data they collect is about Americans."
Nothing on that Wikipedia page supports that claim, and certainly not with a citation from the Snowden documents.
You're just bullshitting, and you're bullshitting on a serious topic like national security. It's transparent you're doing so, because you're citing non-specific things like a general Wikipedia page on the topic, after alleging a very serious thing was supported by the Snowden documents.
If you were serious, and being honest, you'd have cited a specific document. Or set of documents. Or an analysis which supported your position.
But you're not.
(Nor is that Wiki page: several things listed as mass surveillance are nothing of the sort, and just regular ol spy work against foreign targets.)
But improving IT security is less sexy than destroying adversaries' nuclear capabilities, and its easier to sell the (decidedly mixed) value of the latter stories than e.g. improving capabilities to identify and monitor foreign attackers.
Agreed, but the NSA doesn't seem to act like they care about defense, but wielding it only as a weapon.
If they care about defense, I'd be interested to see any meaningful examples.
They do do things that meaningfully improve defense. It's just not emphasized or funded nearly enough.
That was General Hayden's call. He dedicates a fair amount of space to that decision in his memoir. His basic calculus was that defense is 1000x harder than offense, so skip defense and punish your adversary through effective offense. I think the Air Force "Air Power" doctrine may have interfered with his thinking, but who am I?
But it really isn't that way with information on several levels. Bulletproof security is hard but scales better. One patch and everything is immune. Needless to say that hasn't happened with bullets.
Is this paranoid/conspiracy-theory-esque? Maybe a little, but I honestly think it's reasonable to consider this in-character for the NSA.
This is easy to verify by asking the phone companies.
> Is this paranoid/conspiracy-theory-esque?
Yes. It's absolutely conspiracy theory nonsense.
Yeah, because nobody at the NSA would know about NDAs.
The founding fathers didn’t have any conception for our information society. Extra judicial activity, With the corresponding regulatory body, is necessary to maintain parity with a morphing technological society
Ethically, I disagree with your argument. See: unlawful asset theft by police departments, which the supreme Court recently confirmed is illegal.
But from a legal standpoint your argument doesn't hold water. The Constitution is THE binding legal document of the USA, from which literally every aspect of the US government, and thus justice system, derives authority. There is nothing but strict adherence to the Constitution, trying to work outside it might work for a bit but will end up with someone standing before the supreme Court to answer for it.
I disagree that common people should have perfectly secure comm technology.
I disagree with Snowden actions and politics.
The math problem is why it’s imperative to indoctrinate our best and brightest to fight for the greater good, and in regard to the power vacuum surrounding that unavoidable math reality
I also support our government going after people making secure communication devices intended to circumvent government controls, too much at stake
Sure you cannot stop evil person with textbook and initiative but you can do the best you can
related: Lack of Forfeiture mechanism is one instance of a deficiency with mainstream cryptocurrencies
Your "best and brightest" paragraph makes no sense to me, but strongly reminds me of the BS spewing out of the mouth of James Comey while he tried to convince the members of Congress that you can have a crypto system that is both secure against hackers, but has a backdoor for government surveillance, which is a mathematical impossibility. Pretty sure he said "best and brightest" as well, as if silicon valley can magic away mathematical reality.
I also think that for nearly the entire history of mankind, barring the last few decades, governments have been unable to observe a vast majority of communication of their populace. Not sure what you mean by "too much at stake"... I've never heard of a major, nonmilitary attack that could have been prevented if only we'd had a backdoor into the communications; however I have heard of many, many crimes occuring because we THOUGHT we had secure crypto.
Too bad you met some snooty NSA employees. You could report them if you think they aren’t trustworthy to do sigint.
Stop assuming what I do or don’t know or can do, have done etc. Have you identified me?
The issue of making crypto “less secure” isn’t anywhere near the deal that some academics are making it out to be.
I’m just a user, not going to implement crypto. Someone else can solve such problems. Make crypto that has a secure skeleton key system that respects privacy without reducing security. “Make up for it” by making it twice as slow maybe, just an idea
You’re plainly biased against my position and ventured towards an attack. Let’s not, please.
The stuff I was reading made it clear that current skeleton key systems don’t suffer from greatly reduced security by any stretch. but still have a chain of custody system / spof issues. I’m sure something much more clever that respects privacy and solves those issues is possible
Since I’m the one out of your league, can you and your colleagues work on it
Putting down people you perceive as beneath you intellectually isn’t good manners, and is usually counterproductive.
No, you’re right. I’m not an expert and maybe I’m wrong. Just seems possible to build a better mouse trap here. I couldn’t build it, you’re right. Wish I had such skills. But I’ve looked into the topic and bit and noodled with crypto as a user and in principle it should be possible to build a skeleton key crypto system that isn’t much less secure. Just seems that way to me. Non expert guess.
I’m sure such tech could be evolved to solve the spof key issue (wouldn’t want your skeleton key leaking) for instance
My response was in consideration of the points here.
Snowden, one of his goals, besides defecting to Russia, was to “start the conversation”. The rumor is that have been involved with shadow brokers btw
If your boss came to you and said, by law, we need to build crypto with an evolved key escrow system that overcomes the security problems noted by IEEE and others, could you do it? Would you do it? Easy to say “no way, it can’t be done” with or without some type of bias towards a desire for perfectly strong encryption, but again I suspect that it is possible to build such a thing, if it doesn’t exist already.
Do you think such a thing is possible?
Also may I ask your view on Ed Snowden’s actions?
You could grow the notion of comparmentalized information in such a society to create a kind of decentralized system of checks and balances. Eg you see footage with faces hidden and review the morals, vote etc
Could even crowd source such a thing. Surely, related AI efforts are in progress, for better or worse, e.g. FBIC (Facebook intelligence community) info gathering mechanisms
The law itself could eventually evolve to be more dynamic, decentralized
Also, could you please stop creating accounts for every comment or two you post? This is in the site guidelines, and we ban accounts that do it.
HN is a community. Users needn't use their real name, but should have some identity for others to relate to. Otherwise we may as well have no usernames and no community, and that would be a different kind of forum. There are legit uses for throwaways, just not routinely.
Lots more explanation: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20community%20identity...
Oh, that's good. I was just imagining all the news out of Georgia, then.
It's as if the narrative doesn't require any connection at all to reality...
Apparently, he thinks the "defend forward to disrupt or halt malicious cyber activity" strategy was effective for mid-terms. Was it actually? Or, did "... the responses come, if ever, after the costs [of those attacks] are already realized."
If it was effective, how long will it take for the adversaries to work around it (which apparently he acknowledges in the last paragraph)?
Even if they somehow walled all traffic off from Russia and North Korea, wouldn't they just exploiting unwitting computers as 'hop points' to get around the limitations?
Maybe I'm missing something? Maybe there's some "teeth" that can provide cyber deterrence I don't know about?
Classic warfare, atomic, biological and chemical weapons all have rules and a loads of regulations. The "cyber" sector have a long process ahead to catch up. Unfortunately no one seems interested in being really serious about it it, but I certainly wish they will start work on it.
Hopefully we will never experience an all-out "cyber war". Probably a new kind scenario with massive damages to infra structure, lots of civilian casualties and almost no losses among military personal.
NB: These are the same questions I posed in a thread a few days ago (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19282809).
Do you know the size of the Russian economy? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Russia
How many individual US states have an economy larger than Russia? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_between_U.S._states...
And the size of the PR industry? https://www.statista.com/topics/3521/public-relations/
We invented the modern PR industry, AI, and social media. And the PR industry has been perfecting the design of campaigns for 100 years. That's our bailiwick.
You think Russia outclassed us at our own game, at home on our own platforms, on the biggest stage, in the highest stakes game of all?
And then to pull that off with no one noticing or countering it in the most measured world of all time?
That would be like the Russian basketball team  beating the US Dream Team  in all of our major sports combined, at the same time. Not gonna happen.
And to what extent would a feat like that even be possible for someone from the US? And if some super-genius person or group of US citizens with the combination of intimate understanding, sophistication and skill did exist, then why wouldn't they just work for the campaign? And if one in the US could pull that off, why think Russia could?
 Russian Basketball https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia_national_basketball_tea...
 US Dream Team https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_United_States_men%27s_Oly...
Besides, it seems like the U.S. intelligence agencies are better positioned than random people on Hacker News to assess the extent and influence of the Russian influence campaign. What do they say?
And regarding my assessment and their response, that's why I asked the questions. I have a pretty good history of being on the mark , and every time I've talked to them, they've appreciated my perspective. Consider all things, that's the job -- that's what you want -- just like anyone else in strategic positions, they like hard questions.
But, tech is not like basketball. If you automate an approach for exerting influence you can scale differently.
That said, I agree Western democracies are not that fragile :)
Honestly, I wonder why Russia dares poke the bear.. they are unlikely to exert significant influence -- but they are likely to be painted as villains and voters will remember that.