NSA bribed Encryption Companies to Install Back Doors: Was the Law Broken? Did Obama Know?

(By Juan Cole)

Reuters gets the scoop: the National Security Agency gave internet security firm RSA some $10 million to use an NSA encryption formula in its BSafe software. RSA is now a subsidiary of the EMC corporation, and they have urged customers not to use BSafe since the revelations by Edward Snowden made clear that the NSA’s formula in fact allowed the agency access to all the information supposedly encrypted with it.

This story should be a huge scandal, but I fear it won’t be. This is like the FDA paying a pharmaceutical company to carry a drug that does not work and could therefore leave patients open to dying from an untreated illness after taking medication they are assured will cure it. If the NSA could exploit weaknesses in the encryption formula, so could hackers. The NSA subverted the will of millions of customers around the world who used RSA software precisely in a quest to be safe from the prying eyes of government officials and other peeping Toms.

Moreover, the $10 million has to be seen as a bribe (it was a third of that RSA’s income that year). Isn’t it illegal for government officials to bribe private companies? Isn’t it moreover illegal for intelligence officials to give out money like candy to a private company in order to spy on Americans on American soil?

I’d like to know what NSA official or officials were involved in this sting operation on the American people. I’d like to know if Barack Obama knew about it. I’d like to know if the corporate officials who accepted the “contract” with these strings attached knew they were screwing us all over.

This Reuters story makes sense of the allegation emerging from the Snowden leaks three months ago that the NSA had spent $250 million on keeping access to encrypted data by working with firms that provided encryption services. Presumably they have just been ensuring that no one’s encryption formula actually shields things from them.

Increasingly, firms and governments abroad would be crazy to buy encryption products from American companies. Likewise, getting cloud services from US corporations is a way to ensure that the US government can steal your trade secrets.

The NSA’s grasping ambition to abolish all human privacy has endangered $35 billion a year in business for US internet giants such as Apple, Google and Cisco Systems. Cisco’s China orders fell off by 18% after this summer’s revelations from the NSA documents.

German politician Hans-Peter Uhl, from the ruling conservative coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel, has urged that Germany boycott American firms such as Cisco because their security is compromised. Under the so-called PATRIOT Act, government agencies can demand information from companies without a warrant via a National Security Letter. In addition, the NSA routine demands access to company servers, and can compel compliance without having to go to a judge. Not to mention that the NSA has just arrogantly exploited its deep pockets and profound expertise to find weaknesses in corporate encryption and so to insert itself into server-to-server information transfers, without the knowledge of the corporations.

The NSA practices go so far as to endanger the internet itself, since most people don’t want creepy G-Men peeping in on their privacy, and many may simply disengage from the internet to regain their privacy.

RT reported on the earlier revelations:

25 Responses

  1. Dear Juan, I think Americans have decided to forego their right to privacy because of the fear government has imposed on us as a consequence of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror. Over 60 years of folly in Middle East foreign policy, culminating in the Afpak and Iraq wars (and now possibly Iran, we have decided that it is better to be spied upon by our own government than to be victim to a terrorist attack. Even though more people are killed by guns in America, by Americans, and we are okay airbrush to. How we have descended into madness.

    • More like self exaltation and adulation…after all god is on America’s side; god save America and only America. People say this often enough to themselves and believe it.

  2. When Nokia, then fully owned by Finns, developed its first digital phone center system USA (CIA) demanded the documentation of it and changes to be made in the system. before Nokia was allowed to sell the system to Soviet Union. This happened in the 1980’s. So this creating backdoors in systems did not start after 911 to hunt terrorists. Well soon it will be the Chinese “NSA and CIA” the dominant side which demands domestic and foreign producers to make secret product “adjustments”. And USA will be screaming that this is not fair and this deliberate product weakening to allow spying and control have very little to do with .terrorist hunting.

  3. NSA officials routinely lie to Congress, and there is no penalty. US spy agencies record every electronic communication on the planet, and now we learn they have access to all commercially available encryption apps. Juan is correct: smart people are going back to the traditional method of communication, which is face to face. But if your colleague is wired, or the place is on CCTV or wired, then you are out of luck.

    • Your friend may be “wired” without even him knowing it. The NSA or anyone else can turn on his (or your) cell phone’s microphone and listen in. It is best to have a confidential chat in a noisy nightclub!

  4. Was the law broken? It doesn’t matter. We now know that the NSA has broken the law repeatedly, that it’s repeatedly violated the orders of the courts, even its own secret oversight court.

    And what happens? Who is jailed for it? Who is fined? Who loses their job? If government agencies can break the law with complete impunity, we have no law, only a police state. Which brings its full repressive force down on individuals who attempt to uphold the law.

    • Absolutely. It is not even being denied, just explained away in vague terms so the paranoid and fearful majority buys into it.

  5. I think that this one thing, impacting US company’s bottom lines, will give this scandal legs. Spying on individual Americans: no problem. Spying on all Americans: nothing to see, please move along. Hitting profits: major scandal, heads must roll.

    It is this one thing that gives me hope. This is one of those rare times where corporate interests align with the interests of individual Americans. We all have come to realize how insecure the Internet is and we may actually fix it.

    • It is a possibility, but it is just better to use open source software like Linux and then modify the code, write your own encryption etc. A lot of work for just basic privacy.

  6. “This story should be a huge scandal, but I fear it won’t be.”

    Because huge scandals are routine in the United States and the majority of American people are apathetic and morally comatose.

    “Moreover, the $10 million has to be seen as a bribe…”

    Bribes are to Washington’s operatives what mothers’ milk is to babies. The problem is too many of them are not illegal. As a wise person once said, “If you give someone a gift and that changes the relationship, then that gift is a bribe.”

  7. Eisenhower warned about the rising power of the military-industrial complex and not enough people paid attention. Truman warned about the CIA’s growing potential for abuse and not enough people cared about that either – link to consortiumnews.com

  8. When is that cherished and comforting faith in the existence of “law,” or its equally mythical consort “order,” going to finally evaporate in that harsh black light that is starting to illuminate the Covert Imperceptable Inconceivable?

  9. I would be wary quote RT as a source of “real news”… it’s essentially a propaganda arm of the Russian Government, and it could undermine the otherwise excellent scholarly journalism on your Blog.

    • RT is uneven, which means some of its reports are solid and some aren’t. I embed the ones I think are solid. If you like the blog you have to trust my judgment.

      The NYT sold us aluminum tubes and Iraq nuclear centrifuges, helping get us into the Iraq War on false pretenses, but we still cite it.

      • RT is uneven, which means some of its reports are solid and some aren’t.” and that is no worse than our fawning corporate media.

      • Prof. Cole: Good point there. NYT and WaPo are not that far off from Fox (faux) News. People still buy the bull that they spew out. I agree with you RT gets it right now and then, which is a huge improvement over the aforementioned newspapers.

  10. .
    It doesn’t matter to me if Prez Obama knew about this.

    What matters to me is whether the following list of senior government officials who got fired for snooping on me, and then lying about it, grows longer.
    1. _________

    Feel free to add names to the list.
    I just can’t think of any.
    .

    • I can tell you who was called on the carpet for not telling the truth about taking drugs to play baseball to give you an idea of Congress’s priorities.

  11. The problem goes much further than the encryption backdoors, which have been around longer than RSA (the 1980s US DES Data Encryption Standard itself was designed to permit hostile decryption). US and allied military and communications equipment must be presumed to be easily disabled or controlled from the US regardless of the purchasers, who must now increasingly see that. US tech companies are already steadily less competitive against other sources (not that those can be presumed to serve customer interests) and will lose market share but continue to upgrade their disservices.
    Of course the USG executive branch knows of this practice, having made very extensive efforts to originate it and having extensively exploited it, and any plea of ignorance by the Presidents since at least 1980 is a carefully constructed ruse of the please-don’t-tell-me-the-details variety.

  12. What value do both political parties equate American citizenship with, monetarily?

    About 35 cents an hour?

    As long as the constitutional document is protected safe and secure? Well then the actual citizens that document was meant to protect and secure, can be sold out for 35 cents an hour.

    Fourth amendment rights?
    Went out the door in mass when the Patriot Act became law.

  13. Of course Obama knew.

    Obama lies, spins the facts and has all his history hidden.
    Why hidden? If you can’t answer this, you’re very studpid!

    When is the US going to elect a real honest president to represent the 99% of Americans?

    I’m bored with all the useless comments.

    How can Americans repair our Country? I can list the changes neede, but don’t know how to make them. The Occupy movement showed that the bank system, the Fed and Wall Street needs to be changed, but apparently no change was or will be made. The banks and the rich bought up most of the foreclosures and are creating another mortgage crises by renting theim to the homes and not maintaining them.,

    1. Take money out of politics.
    2. Eliminate the Military Industrial Complex.
    3. Replace Federal Reserve with a US Government department.
    4. Establish State Banks like North Dakota.
    5. Let Congress members pay for their healthcare, eliminate their free healthcare for life.
    6. Base healthcare costs, other public fees and fines on fixed per cents of your family gross income, your monthly or annual wealth, liquid assets, etc. Includes auto reg/license, court fees, public utilities, etc. LET EVERYONE PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE especially the rich, millionaires and billionaires that caused the financial crises.

    If America doesn’t wake up, there will be a revolution.
    Our fore fathers left Europe because of taxation without representation which is what’s been happening in America and getting more and more serious.

    The rise in the price of homes is artificial due to the illegal purchase of foreclosures by the banks and Blackstone.

  14. “When is the US going to elect a real honest president to represent the 99% of Americans?”

    First, of the 99% many are enablers because they get a piece of the action that accrues to the One Percent. Then there are others who go along with the policies of the One Percent because they are managing to get along. That leaves a minority who believe in such quaint notions as “a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “liberty and justice for all.”

    So your question really is, “When is the US going to elect a real honest president to represent that minority of idealists?” The point to note here is that it is not enough to elect an honest president. He or she also needs popular support in the streets that translates to support in Congress; otherwise, as happened with Carter, the oligarchs of the Republican and Democratic parties will gang up on that honest president and bring him or her down as they did with Carter.

    Oaths taken by the major party oligarchs and their supporters to defend the Constitution are meaningless. So to are their pledges of allegiance to the United States. Their only allegiance is to themselves and their campaign donors.

    • The minority of idealists can lead the people only with a public forum and democratic process free of economic influence, which we do not have, and without which we cannot get it. The challenge is to create that as a subculture within corrupted institutions, or as a microcosm such as a city or state, and then generalize it. But those things happen only when the bread and circus supply fails and the plutocracy is not vigilant with the help of pseudo-patriots and surveillance, an unlikely prospect.

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