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There are few populations as eager as Americans to ascribe superhuman intelligence, incomparable organizational skills, and indefatigable malevolence to their government bureaucracies. It should surprise no one, then, that a newly-discovered crypto key in Windows 95, 98, 2000 and NT, unfortunately named NSAkey, has American conspiracy theorists rushing to arms. "NSA" might stand for anything, "New Slapdash Application", for example; but it is feared in this case to signify America's infamous international spook organization, the National Security Agency. The mystery key is one of two that ship with all editions of Windows and enable third parties to install security and software components without end-user authorization. The first is used by Microsoft; but until yesterday, no one knew what the second one was for, or who held the public portion of it. The mysterious second key is a back door for the National Security Agency to monitor Windows computers worldwide, according to Andrew Fernandes, chief scientist with security software outfit Cryptonym. The company believes not only this, but further that the NSA has had Windows crypto keys all along. We never knew it because, according to Fernandes, Microsoft has stealthily re-named the NSA keys before products containing them were released. But when Fernandes reverse-engineered a recent Win-NT service pack, he found the smoking gun: NSAkey in all its nefarious glory. The file name, he reckons, had slipped past the watchful eyes of the Microspies, thereby accidentally revealing the key's true identity and purpose to an American public who have always suspected as much. The NSA operates Echelon, a global network able to intercept most forms of electronic communication. The agency's charter forbids it to monitor US citizens on US soil; but it does spend a good deal of time monitoring the communications of foreign governments, embassies and corporations. This offshore orientation, combined with the secrecy normally attending most espionage operations, has left the agency open to deep suspicion and wild speculation among the American citizenry. The NSA is suspected of everything from the overthrow of foreign governments to negotiating the repatriation of hostages abducted by aliens. The agency does not grant telephone interviews, The Register discovered with some disappointment. Microsoft replied to Fernandes' charges by pointing out that all crypto software intended for export must be submitted to the National Security Agency for review. The name NSAkey merely indicates that the key passed muster with US export regulators. Microsoft claims to be the key's only holder. Fernandes has a different view. He believes that NSA holds the key, has always held the key, and uses it with impunity to modify Windows code in various foreign quarters. "It is tremendously easier for the NSA to load unauthorized security services on all copies of Microsoft Windows, and once these security services are loaded, they can effectively compromise your entire operating system," he says. Indeed, the second key would enable a third party to modify the Windows OS code with a simple application. With that in mind, Cryptonym has posted detailed instructions on its web site to defeat would-be exploiters of NSAkey. And not a moment too soon, we are sure. Whether or not the NSA has any designs on the key, we know plenty of hackers who have. ®

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