NSA wages secret war against encryption

by Shaun Waterman-The Washington Times  |  published on October 9, 2013

NSA data
In its relentless effort to expand its surveillance capabilities, the National Security Agency has eroded trust in the process that secures online financial transactions and forms the foundations of privacy and security on the Web, computer scientists and Internet security specialists say.

Recently leaked documents have revealed that the NSA has sought to defeat encryption, which scrambles confidential data to shield it from prying eyes. One critic compares the NSA effort to a misguided plot to sabotage vaccines.

“Suppose the U.S. government says terrorists are getting vaccinated, and in response to that, they decided they were going to put saltwater instead of vaccine in every vaccination needle in the world,” said Jon Callas, co-inventor of Pretty Good Privacy, the most widely used email encryption system. “That would be terrible. It would be inhuman. But if it’s true [about NSA efforts], it’s kind of like that.”

Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the agency used financial incentives, secret courts and outright theft to acquire the digital “keys” to widely used commercial encryption technologies. The agency, working with its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, also built software “back doors” into encryption packages and, some suspect, inserted vulnerabilities into encryption standards.

News that the NSA is trying to defeat encryption is “very disconcerting,” said Tatu Ylonen, the Finnish computer scientist who invented Secure Shell, the encryption protocol used by almost all large commercial enterprises such as banks and credit card companies.

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