Of spooks, security and Vista

Where's my tinfoil hat?

hands waving dollar bills in the air

Comment News that emerged early January that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been at Microsoft looking at the security of Vista should hardly come as a surprise.

With a new operating system that will find its way onto millions of desktops worldwide, the thoughts that some of the smartest brains in the security game have been trying to break the OS should give us all a degree of comfort - or does it?

For many, Microsoft (and especially Bill Gates), is the devil incarnate that should never be trusted. The thought it is getting friendly with the NSA gives the Area 51 mob yet more fuel for their incandescent fire.

One of the biggest issues the conspiracy theorists have is that the NSA has engineered a back door into Vista that will enable it to penetrate an organisation's security and see what is going on.

Well, this supposes a number of things. First, that there is a great conspiracy between Microsoft and the NSA to allow access to the code base and for the back door to be engineered into the system. Some would suggest this would be put in place whether Microsoft agreed or not, no doubt with creepy people wandering the halls of Redmond at night breaking into server rooms.

Second, it supposes that the NSA has the resources to engineer back doors and silence any leaks from those in the know. Many hundreds of people have been working on Vista and techies, being techies, can't keep anything hush hush, so I am sure if this was the case we would have heard.

Unless, of course, Lake Washington has been filling up with software engineers chucked off the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge and we just haven't noticed.

The more interesting point is to what level do manufacturers of hardware and software that use encryption work with the authorities? Is there a moral responsibility on companies to submit their products to relevant agencies or at least give them the appropriate keys? I know of vendors in the UK that have been visited by gentlemen from Cheltenham who take a very serious view on what they should be given. Imagine if there was a nascent terrorist plot or paedophile ring that could not be smashed as they were using a hokie cokie encryption algorithm that no one could break.

The NSA cites the fact its work is primarily signals intelligence (SigInt in spook speak), that is eavesdropping on communications between parties. The secondary part of its work is information assurance, protecting software assets from Trojans and other nasties.

Surely the fact the NSA is now publicly admitting working with Microsoft should give us all a bit more confidence in the security of the OS. Or should I be getting my tin foil hat back out of the cupboard?

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