NSA’s Super-Secure Database Dodges Bullet From Senate

by CADE METZ, Wired.com  |  published on December 22, 2012

The sweeping database software that stores top-secret information inside the National Security Agency may yet be adopted by the rest of the U.S. Defense Department and other government agencies, after a change to the proposed Defense Department budget for the coming year.

This week, the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees made their final changes to the National Defense Authorization Act — the Congressional bill detailing the Defense Department budget for 2013 — and this included the removal of language that threatened to curb the use Accumulo, the massive database developed by the NSA and then shared with the world as open source software.

Though Accumulo includes security controls you won’t find in other databases designed to store such large amounts of data, the Senate Armed Services committee had questioned whether it ran afoul of a government policy that bars agencies from building their own software when they can just as easily use commercial alternatives. In an earlier version of the DoD budget, the Senate even went so far as to order the director of the NSA to merge Accumulo’s security tools into other open source database projects.

Some feared the committee’s stance would set a dangerous precedent for the treatment of open source software inside the government, but at least some of these fears have been allayed by the final version of the bill. The bill still requires approval from Congress as a whole and President Obama, but according to The Hill, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told reporters on Tuesday that he saw no reason for the White House to veto the bill as it now stands. Senator Levin’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The new language is certainly a big win for Sqrrl, a company founded by a group of NSA engineers who helped build Accumulo. The startup seeks to bring the NSA’s database to other government agencies and businesses in much the same way a company like Red Hat delivered the Linux operating system to the commercial market. But Oren Falkowitz — one of the ex-NSA engineers that founded Sqrrl — still wonders whether the controversy around Accumulo will have a “chilling effect” on the way government agencies think about building and open sourcing new software.

“If you talk to people around the government, the joke is: ‘I don’t want to build new software. I might have to face a Congressional hearing,’” Falkowitz says. “You can see how people might start to think twice about trying to solve new problems.”

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