[ISN] The long, strong arm of the NSA

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Tue Dec 22 1998 - 23:33:30 PST

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    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
    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
    Exchange Server.
    "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 U.S. 
    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 frustrating." 
    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
    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
    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
    strong encryption. 
    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:
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