Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and detailed Friday by the Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica, have revealed an NSA decryption program, codenamed Bullrun, that has the ability to hack such protocols as HTTPS, VoIP and Secure Sockets Layer. SSL is used to protect today's sensitive Web transactions, including online banking and e-commerce.
"Project Bullrun deals with NSA's abilities to defeat the encryption used in specific network communication technologies," said a leaked NSA document. Leaked documents also revealed that the NSA has modified some commercial encryption products "to make them exploitable" and worked with "industry partners" -- meaning, U.S. technology firms -- to add known exploits or back door access to their software and hardware.
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In the wake of the Bullrun leak, information security and cryptography experts are sounding off on the biggest resulting security repercussions, as well as questions that remain unanswered:
1. Back Doors Could Be Abused By Others.
The most recently published leaks suggest that the NSA has built back doors into well-known technology products including CryptoAG, Lotus Notes, and possibly Windows, and purposefully weakened encryption standards. "It's probably just a coincidence that Intel has a crypto random number generator called Bull Mountain," tweeted Jeffrey Carr, CEO of network defense firm Taia Global, referring to Intel's random number generator Bull Mountain, which of course bears a passing resemblance to the name of the NSA's Bullrun decryption program.
But what's to stop foreign intelligence agencies, criminal gangs or unscrupulous business rivals from finding and tapping the product back doors or cryptographic weaknesses designed by the NSA? In fact, Pro Publica, which bills itself as a "non-profit newsroom," said that it had chosen to publish the recent information on the NSA's capabilities precisely because of such questions.
"The potential for abuse of such extraordinary capabilities for surveillance, including for political purposes, is considerable," it said. "The government insists it has put in place checks and balances to limit misuses of this technology. But the question of whether they are effective is far from resolved and is an issue that can only be debated by the people and their elected representatives if the basic facts are revealed."
2. Press Reports Omitted Crucial Details.
None of last week's press reports included details from the leaked documents pertaining to precisely which products the NSA might have had back doors added, or which encryption algorithms the agency might have weakened. "I wish we knew more, there isn't enough detail in what's been released to really pin down what we're dealing with," said security researcher and encryption expert Adam Caudill via email. "We know the NSA has attacks -- we just don't know on what, specifically. Most of the things mentioned are systems with many components, not just single algorithms. Without knowing what algorithms, we are left to guess, and speculation can be dangerous."
3. NSA Documents Suggest Crypto Really Works.
Despite the NSA's capabilities, it isn't omniscient or "magical," and in fact faces some real-world encryption challenges, said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of BT, writing in Friday's Guardian. Schneier revealed that for the past two weeks, he's been helping the Guardian review hundreds of top-secret NSA documents that were leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
"How do you communicate securely against such an adversary?" said Schneier. "Snowden said it in an online Q&A soon after he made his first document public: 'Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.'"
"The crypto is good. It's one of the few things we can rely on," echoed Jon Callas, CTO of Silent Circle and previously a co-founder of PGP, via email. "Snowden said that himself. It's the rest of the systems that need careful examination."
Some of the NSA's most recently revealed operating techniques likewise suggest that encryption still provides protection. "I am sure we'd all like to know more technical details about the weaknesses in the widely deployed ciphers and other algorithms, if there are any and especially if they are serious," said encryption expert Ivan Ristic, director of engineering at Qualys, via email. "But, actually, I don't think that's what is really important. First, we now understand the extent at which the NSA is working to bypass encryption, rather than attack it. I think that's very telling; we can conclude that encryption -- if implemented properly -- works as designed."