Security

U.S. gov: Leaks on how we break encryption are a 'road map' for terrorists

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

Above: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

Image Credit: Medill DC/Flickr

Yesterday’s news about the government’s ability to crack most forms of encryption is old news, according to the Office of the Director on National Intelligence (ODNI).

Yesterday, the New York Times and the Guardian released documents obtained through former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden that showed the government’s wide-reaching encryption-foiling abilities. According to these documents, the government can decrypt many of our protected communications through partnerships with major unnamed tech companies and, when all else fails, hacking.

The ODNI explained in a Tumblr post emailed to Venturebeat this morning that the fact that the government performs this kind of cracking and hacking should be obvious:

It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract our adversaries’ use of encryption. … While the specifics of how our intelligence agencies carry out this cryptanalytic mission have been kept secret, the fact that NSA’s mission includes deciphering enciphered communications is not a secret, and is not news. Indeed, NSA’s public website states that its mission includes leading “the U.S. Government in cryptology … in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies.”

But having your encryption busted is kind of like whispering in a room you don’t know is bugged. In most cases, you’ve done nothing wrong, you just don’t want everyone to hear. Whether it’s “hardly surprising” or not, if people feel betrayed by this kind of action, the government should see that and address it.

The released documents went into some detail about how this is done. The government has some partnerships with companies that allow the NSA to put in “backdoors” or receive “master encryption keys” to unlock any communications on that service. That disrupts trust in the security industry — and trust is the backbone of the security industry.

The NSA can also hack individual computers, if it needs to, though it prefers to hack entire networks.

The government says that it’s a shame this kind of information is getting out because the disclosure could lead terrorist, hacker, and criminal targets to adopt stronger forms of encryption and protection techniques.

The ODNI continued:

Anything that yesterday’s disclosures add to the ongoing public debate is outweighed by the road map they give to our adversaries about the specific techniques we are using to try to intercept their communications in our attempts to keep America and our allies safe and to provide our leaders with the information they need to make difficult and critical national security decisions.