Why the NSA's Attacks on the Internet Must Be Made Public

By reporting on the agency's actions, the vulnerabilities in our computer systems can be fixed. It's the only way to force change

Today, the Guardian is reporting on how the NSA targets Tor users, along with details of how it uses centrally placed servers on the internet to attack individual computers. This builds on a Brazilian news story from last week that, in part, shows that the NSA is impersonating Google servers to users; a German story on how the NSA is hacking into smartphones; and a Guardian story from two weeks ago on how the NSA is deliberately weakening common security algorithms, protocols, and products.

The common thread among these stories is that the NSA is subverting the internet and turning it into a massive surveillance tool. The NSA's actions are making us all less safe, because its eavesdropping mission is degrading its ability to protect the US.

Among IT security professionals, it has been long understood that the public disclosure of vulnerabilities is the only consistent way to improve security. That's why researchers publish information about vulnerabilities in computer software and operating systems, cryptographic algorithms, and consumer products like implantable medical devices, cars, and CCTV cameras.

It wasn't always like this. In the early years of computing, it was common for security researchers to quietly alert the product vendors about vulnerabilities, so they could fix them without the "bad guys" learning about them. The problem was that the vendors wouldn't bother fixing them, or took years before getting around to it. Without public pressure, there was no rush.

This all changed when researchers started publishing. Now vendors are under intense public pressure to patch vulnerabilities as quickly as possible. The majority of security improvements in the hardware and software we all use today is a result of this process. This is why Microsoft's Patch Tuesday process fixes so many vulnerabilities every month. This is why Apple's iPhone is designed so securely. This is why so many products push out security updates so often. And this is why mass-market cryptography has continually improved. Without public disclosure, you'd be much less secure against cybercriminals, hacktivists, and state-sponsored cyberattackers.

The NSA's actions turn that process on its head, which is why the security community is so incensed. The NSA not only develops and purchases vulnerabilities, but deliberately creates them through secret vendor agreements. These actions go against everything we know about improving security on the internet.

It's folly to believe that any NSA hacking technique will remain secret for very long. Yes, the NSA has a bigger research effort than any other institution, but there's a lot of research being done—by other governments in secret, and in academic and hacker communities in the open. These same attacks are being used by other governments. And technology is fundamentally democratizing: today's NSA secret techniques are tomorrow's PhD theses and the following day's cybercrime attack tools.

It's equal folly to believe that the NSA's secretly installed backdoors will remain secret. Given how inept the NSA was at protecting its own secrets, it's extremely unlikely that Edward Snowden was the first sysadmin contractor to walk out the door with a boatload of them. And the previous leakers could have easily been working for a foreign government. But it wouldn't take a rogue NSA employee; researchers or hackers could discover any of these backdoors on their own.

This isn't hypothetical. We already know of government-mandated backdoors being used by criminals in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. We know China is actively engaging in cyber-espionage worldwide. A recent Economist article called it "akin to a government secretly commanding lockmakers to make their products easier to pick—and to do so amid an epidemic of burglary."

The NSA has two conflicting missions. Its eavesdropping mission has been getting all the headlines, but it also has a mission to protect US military and critical infrastructure communications from foreign attack. Historically, these two missions have not come into conflict. During the cold war, for example, we would defend our systems and attack Soviet systems.

But with the rise of mass-market computing and the internet, the two missions have become interwoven. It becomes increasingly difficult to attack their systems and defend our systems, because everything is using the same systems: Microsoft Windows, Cisco routers, HTML, TCP/IP, iPhones, Intel chips, and so on. Finding a vulnerability—or creating one—and keeping it secret to attack the bad guys necessarily leaves the good guys more vulnerable.

Far better would be for the NSA to take those vulnerabilities back to the vendors to patch. Yes, it would make it harder to eavesdrop on the bad guys, but it would make everyone on the internet safer. If we believe in protecting our critical infrastructure from foreign attack, if we believe in protecting internet users from repressive regimes worldwide, and if we believe in defending businesses and ourselves from cybercrime, then doing otherwise is lunacy.

It is important that we make the NSA's actions public in sufficient detail for the vulnerabilities to be fixed. It's the only way to force change and improve security.

Categories: National Security Policy, Privacy and Surveillance

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.