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The long, strong arm of the NSA (fwd)
The long, strong arm of the NSA
July 27, 1998
Web posted at: 4:15 PM EDT
by Ellen Messmer
FORT MEADE, Maryland (IDG) -- Back in the days of the cold war, Washington
insiders used to joke that NSA stood for "No Such Agency." The government
denied the very existence of this group, which is dedicated to intercepting
and decoding foreign communications.
That was then. Today the National Security Agency is well known, and spends
a lot of time leaning on software, switch and router vendors, pushing them
to re-tool their products. The agency's goal: to ensure that the government
has access to encrypted data.
The industry is facing a year-end deadline to add a government-approved
back door into network gear. Vendors that don't provide this access risk
losing export privileges.
Cruising up and down Silicon Valley, NSA spooks from the agency's Fort
Meade headquarters have been making pit stops at companies ranging from
industry leaders Netscape Communications Corp. and Sun Microsystems, Inc.
to start-ups such as VPNet Technologies, Inc. in order to get a peek at
products still on the drawing board.
The NSA wants software vendors to make sure that any product with strong
encryption have some way for the government to tap into the data. And
because practically every commercial network application, router or switch
these days includes encryption or an option for it, almost every vendor now
has to answer to the NSA if it wants to export.
Hot line to the NSA
It's gotten to the point where no vendor hip to the NSA's power will even
start building products without checking in with Fort Meade first. This
includes even that supposed ruler of the software universe, Microsoft Corp.
"It's inevitable that you design products with specific [encryption]
algorithms and key lengths in mind," said Ira Rubenstein, Microsoft
attorney and a top lieutenant to Bill Gates. By his own account, Rubenstein
acts as a "filter" between the NSA and Microsoft's design teams in Redmond,
Wash. "Any time that you're developing a new product, you will be working
closely with the NSA," he noted.
When it comes to encryption, it's widely known that a 40-bit encryption key
is easily breakable and hence rather useless. Until not long ago, this is
what the U.S. government allowed for the export of software.
But the Clinton administration a year and a half ago said it would allow
the export of products with stronger encryption keys by any vendor that
agreed to add a "key-recovery" feature to its products by year-end - giving
the government access to encrypted data without the end user's knowledge.
According to Bill Reinsche, Department of Commerce undersecretary for the
Bureau of Export Controls, about 50 vendors have submitted plans for
government-approved key-recovery, also called data-recovery. These
companies, which include IBM, were rewarded with Key Management
Infrastructure (KMI) export licenses to export products with 56-bit or
stronger encryption until year-end.
But some companies are discovering that dealing with the Commerce
Department for a KMI license means more involvement with the NSA.
The Bureau of Export Control is actually just a front for the NSA, said
Alison Giacomelli, director of export compliance at VPNet Technologies,
Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based vendor of IP-based encryption gateways.
"The NSA has sign-off authority on these KMI licenses," Giacomelli said.
In return for the KMI license, VPNet opened itself up for an NSA audit.
"They've already come out once, and they'll be coming out again,"
Giacomelli said. VPNet remains committed to meeting the deadline for adding
key-recovery to its product but has one major problem: uncertainty about
what the NSA really wants. The confusion means "there's a lot of risk . . .
in terms of engineering and resources," Giacomelli said.
Clearly wary of granting the government supervision over its products,
Microsoft has stubbornly refused to submit a data-recovery plan, even
though the Redmond giant already includes a data-recovery feature in its
"The Exchange Server can only be used when this feature is present,"
Rubenstein said. "Because we haven't filed a product plan, it's harder for
us to export this than for companies that have filed plans."
But in an odd-couple sort of joint-partner arrangement, Microsoft and the
NSA did work together to build what's called Server Gated Cryptography.
Primarily intended to help banks use Web servers to do business
internationally, the technology lets a server with a special digital
certificate provide 128-bit encryption support to a Web browser outside the
Sybase, Inc., which also submitted a plan to add key-recovery to its
products, found it hard to satisfy the government's demands. "They approved
our technological approach but disapproved each of our applications with
it," said Sybase President and CEO Mitchell Kertzman. "It's been
Documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by
the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center contain
the data-recovery plan Netscape filed at the Commerce Department last year.
Netscape's plan explains that the "escrow of private encryption keys" could
be achieved by developing client and server products that can only issue an
X.509 digital certificate after the private key has been escrowed. The key
can only be held by an entity chosen by the intranet administrator who
handles security policy.
The Netscape plan called for introducing a certificate server with recovery
capabilities in the first quarter of this year, with the introduction of
S/MIME clients with basic recovery features in the second quarter.
Netscape hasn't actually carried out this plan, and the company declined to
discuss it. Netscape attorney Peter Harter would only say officially, "We
had no choice but to submit the plan, no matter how much we opposed
key-escrow, in order to be part of the ongoing dialog."
Other FOIA documents show that Netscape was regularly briefing the NSA on
its product plans since 1996 and that then NSA Deputy Director William
Crowell took a special interest in trying to dissuade Netscape from using
Crowell, now vice president for product marketing and strategy at Cylink
Corp., said he had frequent discussions with Netscape, especially
concerning changes to Netscape Navigator. "Their product didn't have a
separate signature key, so if the government used the product for
key-escrow later, you'd have to store the signature key with a third party,
which we thought was a bad idea," Crowell said. He added that Netscape
Navigator 3.0 adopted the changes the NSA wanted.
According to Crowell, the NSA has a great deal of expertise in securing
communications, and it wants to ensure that products bought by the Defense
Department meet NSA standards. "In addition, as part of the NSA's
intelligence mission, [the agency needs] to have a thorough understanding
of where commercial products are headed."
Taher Elgamal, author of the Netscape data-recovery plan, who recently left
Netscape to start his own venture, said Netscape had no choice but to
maintain constant contact with the NSA. "They're costing the industry a lot
of money," Elgamal said.
Others agree. "Everyone in Silicon Valley, including us, has to have
specific staff - highly paid experts - to deal with them," said Chris
Tolles, security group product manager at Sun. "Their job is to wrangle
this from a policy standpoint."
Sun has had run-ins with the NSA in the past. Two years ago, the NSA
objected to Sun including encryption in the exportable version of Java 1.1.
The end result was that Sun stripped encryption out of Java 1.1 and the
software was delayed by about six months. Related stories:
Hole in Internet security discovered - June 30, 1998
Government restrictions on encryption pose obstacles
for Internet security - May 18, 1998