Gates, Gerstner helped NSA snoop – US Congressman
Influential Congressman shoots mouth off
A recent report renews claims that the US National Security Agency (NSA) secured the co-operation of IBM and Microsoft in gaining access to encrypted data, and documentation seen by The Register gives a fuller picture of how this may have taken place. In this congressman Curt Weldon makes the astonishing claim that the US military was able to see Saddam Hussein's orders before his commanders did. According to Cryptography & Liberty 2000, published last week by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC): "On September 28, 1999, Congressman Curt Weldon disclosed that high level deal-making on access to encrypted data had taken place between the NSA and IBM and Microsoft." The Register has seen an unofficial transcript of a luncheon meeting on Capitol Hill of the Internet Caucus Panel Discussion about the new encryption policy that provides some elaboration. Weldon is a senior member of the National Security Committee and chairman of the Military Research and Development Subcommittee. This has oversight of a $37 billion budget for all military R&D [much of it for the Pentagon's computer systems], and arranged a series of classified hearings and briefings from the NSA and CIA. At the meeting Weldon bragged that: "In Desert Storm... my understanding is that our commanders in the field had Saddam Hussein's commands before his own command officers had them, because of our ability to intercept and break the codes of Saddam's military. I want to make sure we have that capacity in the future. I responded in a very positive way to the argument that was being made by the CIA, the NSA and the DOD - and we took some every tough positions." Although Desert Storm took place long before NT was available, these remarks give further weight to arguments that the NSA is determined to have back doors. Weldon said that the deputy secretary of defense John Hamre had briefed him that "in discussions with people like Bill Gates and Gerstner from IBM that there would be... an unstated ability to get access to systems if we needed it. ... if there is some kind of tacit understanding, I would like to know what it is." Weldon's concern was that there was a need to document this policy for future administrations, and he said he wondered why access to systems couldn't be worked out formally with industry. "In fact, I called Gerstner and I said, .Can't you IBM people and... software people get together and find the middle ground, instead of us having to do legislation.'" Weldon continued: "I have advocated that we give significant new tax breaks to the encryption and software industry in this country to give them more incentive to stay in America and do their work here. ... I want to be absolutely certain that in terms of our ability to deal with intelligence overseas, to be able to have information dominance overseas, to be able to use the kinds of tools that the CIA and Defense Department needs in adversarial relationships that we are in fact providing..." Depending on their bravado to fact ratio, Weldon's remarks could give further legs to the allegation made last August by Andrew Fernandes of Cryptonym. These are detailed in the USA section of the EPIC report's country-by country review. Fernandes suggested that Microsoft might have included a key for the US National Security Agency in order to get approval for the export of NT. His clue is in service pack 5 for NT4, where it at least looks as though Microsoft forgot to remove information that identified the security components. The CryptoAPI in NT has a second backup key, and it has been suggested that this is in the possession of the NSA. Microsoft vigorously denies this, claims that it holds both keys, and says that the second key was a back-up for disaster-recovery purposes. This latter explanation would be consistent in view of Microsoft's record of opposing key escrow, but there are some additional nagging concerns. One enigma is the name of the back-up key - _NSAKEY. Microsoft says that "this is simply an unfortunate name" and that "the keys in question are the ones that allow us to ensure compliance with the NSA's technical review" and so became known at Microsoft as "the NSA keys". Fernandes makes several observations, including the suggestion that root keys should be symmetrically encrypted and cryptographically split to guard against loss - as happens in tamper-resistant hardware. Fernandes also noted that Microsoft has previously written poor software with the same weakness - in the Authenticode framework, for example. Fernandes also pointed out that there is a flaw in the way the crypto_verify function is implemented, because the NSA key can be eliminated or replaced easily. He produced a demonstration program to do this, which if used would remove the possibility of the NSA having export control. Replacing this NSA key would be commercially illegal, but if it is indeed a key owned by the NSA, the legality outside the USA of what is being done is an open question. There is a further possibility: it may be that the NSA did not in fact need a key as it had its own module between Windows and the encryption, which could of course specifically intercept just secure traffic. Microsoft cast further doubt on its explanation when it told the Washington Post that the _NSAKEY was "only a notation that conforms to technical standards set by the NSA". The snag with this explanation is that the NSA has no technical standards for publicly available cryptography, leaving Microsoft's claim looking very shaky. It is known that in 1996, IBM agreed with the NSA that in return for allowing Lotus Notes to be exported with 64-bit encryption, the NSA would get to have 24 of the bits, and so would only have to crack 40 bits, which was within the NSA's capability at that time. ® Related stories: Microsoft collaborating with US spymasters
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