National Security Agency (Photo credit: Scott Beale)
from the read-it deptAmong the many problems with President Obama's weak statement concerning NSA surveillance was the fact that he didn't even address the serious issue of the NSA undermining cryptography with backdoors. The White House's task force had included a recommendation to end this practice, and the President appeared to ignore it entirely. Now, a large group of US computer security and cryptography researchers have sent a strongly worded open letter to the President condemning these efforts (and his failure to stop the program).
Indiscriminate collection, storage, and processing of unprecedented amounts of personal information chill free speech and invite many types of abuse, ranging from mission creep to identity theft. These are not hypothetical problems; they have occurred many times in the past. Inserting backdoors, sabotaging standards, and tapping commercial data-center links provide bad actors, foreign and domestic, opportunities to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities.
The value of society-wide surveillance in preventing terrorism is unclear, but the threat that such surveillance poses to privacy, democracy, and the US technology sector is readily apparent. Because transparency and public consent are at the core of our democracy, we call upon the US government to subject all mass-surveillance activities to public scrutiny and to resist the deployment of mass-surveillance programs in advance of sound technical and social controls. In finding a way forward, the five principles promulgated at http://reformgovernmentsurveillance.com/ provide a good starting point.
The choice is not whether to allow the NSA to spy. The choice is between a communications infrastructure that is vulnerable to attack at its core and one that, by default, is intrinsically secure for its users. Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals, but we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life. We urge the US government to reject society-wide surveillance and the subversion of security technology, to adopt state-of-the-art, privacy-preserving technology, and to ensure that new policies, guided by enunciated principles, support human rights, trustworthy commerce, and technical innovation.
That ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com site is the one launched by a bunch of the biggest internet companies, so it's good to see these researchers and technologists lining up behind that effort as well.
One of the things that's been glaring about all of the investigations and panels and research into these programs is that they almost always leave out actual technologists, and especially leave out security experts. That seems like a big weakness, and now those security researchers are speaking out anyway. At some point, the politicians backing these programs are going to have to realize that almost no one who actually understands this stuff thinks what they're doing is the right way to go about this.