Entries Tagged "NSA"

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More on the German Terrorist Plot

This article is a detailed writeup of the actual investigation. While it seems that intercepted emails were instrumental at several points during the investigation, the article doesn’t explain whether the intercepts were the result of some of the wholesale eavesdropping programs or specifically obtained for this case.

The US intelligence agencies, the NSA and CIA, provided the most important information: copies of messages between German Islamists and their contacts in Pakistan. Three people in Germany were apparently the ones maintaining contact. The first was a man with the pseudonym “Muaz,” who investigators suspected was Islamist Attila S., 22. The second was a man named “Zafer,” from the town of Neunkirchen, who they believed was Zafer S., an old friend of Daniel S., one of the three men arrested last week. According to his father, Hizir S., Zafer is currently attending a language course in Istanbul. The third name that kept reappearing in the emails the NSA intercepted was “Abdul Malik,” a.k.a. Fritz Gelowicz, who prosecutors believe was the ringleader of the German cell, a man Deputy Secretary Hanning calls “cold-blooded and full of hate.”


While at the Pakistani camp in the spring of 2006, Adem Y. and Gelowicz probably discussed ways to secretly deliver messages from Pakistan to Germany. They used a Yahoo mailbox, but instead of sending messages directly, they would store them in a draft folder through which their fellow Islamists could then access the messages. But it turned out that the method they hit upon had long been known as an al-Qaida ploy. The CIA, NSA and BKA had no trouble monitoring the group’s communications. Two men who went by the aliases “Sule” or “Suley” and “Jaf” kept up the contact from the IJU side.

This is also interesting, given the many discussions on this blog and elsewhere about stopping people watching and photographing potential terrorist targets:

Early in the evening of Dec. 31, 2006, a car containing several passengers drove silently past the Hutier Barracks in Lamboy, a section of the western German city of Hanau. Hanau is known as the home of a major US military base, where thousands of US soldiers live and routinely look forward to celebrating New Year’s Eve in their home away from home. The BfV’s observation team later noted that the car drove back and forth in front of the barracks several times. When German agents finally stopped the car, they discovered that the passengers were Fritz Gelowicz, Attila S. from the southern city of Ulm, Ayhan T. from Langen near Frankfurt and Dana B., a German of Iranian descent from Frankfurt who, when asked what he and the others were doing there, claimed that they had just wanted to see “how the Americans celebrate New Year’s Eve.”

Posted on September 21, 2007 at 4:00 AMView Comments

Interview with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell

Mike McConnell, U.S. National Intelligence Director, gave an interesting interview to the El Paso Times.

I don’t think he’s ever been so candid before. For example, he admitted that the nation’s telcos assisted the NSA in their massive eavesdropping efforts. We already knew this, of course, but the government has steadfastly maintained that either confirming or denying this would compromise national security.

There are, of course, moments of surreality. He said that it takes 200 hours to prepare a FISA warrant. Ryan Single calculated that since there were 2,167 such warrants in 2006, there must be “218 government employees with top secret clearances sitting in rooms, writing only FISA warrants.” Seems unlikely.

But most notable is this bit:

Q. So you’re saying that the reporting and the debate in Congress means that some Americans are going to die?

A. That’s what I mean. Because we have made it so public. We used to do these things very differently, but for whatever reason, you know, it’s a democratic process and sunshine’s a good thing. We need to have the debate.

Ah, the politics of fear. I don’t care if it’s the terrorists or the politicians, refuse to be terrorized. (More interesting discussions on the interview here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Posted on August 24, 2007 at 6:30 AMView Comments

The New U.S. Wiretapping Law and Security

Last week, Congress gave President Bush new wiretapping powers. I was going to write an essay on the security implications of this, but Susan Landau beat me to it:

To avoid wiretapping every communication, NSA will need to build massive automatic surveillance capabilities into telephone switches. Here things get tricky: Once such infrastructure is in place, others could use it to intercept communications.

Grant the NSA what it wants, and within 10 years the United States will be vulnerable to attacks from hackers across the globe, as well as the militaries of China, Russia and other nations.

Such threats are not theoretical. For almost a year beginning in April 2004, more than 100 phones belonging to members of the Greek government, including the prime minister and ministers of defense, foreign affairs, justice and public order, were spied on with wiretapping software that was misused. Exactly who placed the software and who did the listening remain unknown. But they were able to use software that was supposed to be used only with legal permission.


U.S. communications technology is fragile and easily penetrated. While advanced, it is not decades ahead of that of our friends or our rivals. Compounding the issue is a key facet of modern systems design: Intercept capabilities are likely to be managed remotely, and vulnerabilities are as likely to be global as local. In simplifying wiretapping for U.S. intelligence, we provide a target for foreign intelligence agencies and possibly rogue hackers. Break into one service, and you get broad access to U.S. communications.

More about the Greek wiretapping scandal. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent book by Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau on the subject: Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 3:29 PMView Comments

NSA Hiring Data Miners

Certainly looks that way:

The Algorithm Developer will work with massive amounts of inter-related data and develop and implement algorithms to search, sort and find patterns and hidden relationships in the data. The preferred candidate would be required to be able to work closely with Analysts to develop Rapid Operational Prototypes. The candidate would have the availability of existing algorithms as a model to begin.

Posted on January 24, 2007 at 2:57 PMView Comments

NSA Helps Microsoft with Windows Vista

Is this a good idea or not?

For the first time, the giant software maker is acknowledging the help of the secretive agency, better known for eavesdropping on foreign officials and, more recently, U.S. citizens as part of the Bush administration’s effort to combat terrorism. The agency said it has helped in the development of the security of Microsoft’s new operating system—the brains of a computer—to protect it from worms, Trojan horses and other insidious computer attackers.


The NSA declined to comment on its security work with other software firms, but Sager said Microsoft is the only one “with this kind of relationship at this point where there’s an acknowledgment publicly.”

The NSA, which provided its service free, said it was Microsoft’s idea to acknowledge the spy agency’s role.

It’s called the “equities issue.” Basically, the NSA has two roles: eavesdrop on their stuff, and protect our stuff. When both sides use the same stuff—Windows Vista, for example—the agency has to decide whether to exploit vulnerabilities to eavesdrop on their stuff or close the same vulnerabilities to protect our stuff. In its partnership with Microsoft, it could have decided to go either way: to deliberately introduce vulnerabilities that it could exploit, or deliberately harden the OS to protect its own interests.

A few years ago I was ready to believe the NSA recognized we’re all safer with more secure general-purpose computers and networks, but in the post-9/11 take-the-gloves-off eavesdrop-on-everybody environment, I simply don’t trust the NSA to do the right thing.

“I kind of call it a Good Housekeeping seal” of approval, said Michael Cherry, a former Windows program manager who now analyzes the product for Directions on Microsoft, a firm that tracks the software maker.

Cherry says the NSA’s involvement can help counter the perception that Windows is not entirely secure and help create a perception that Microsoft has solved the security problems that have plagued it in the past. “Microsoft also wants to make the case that [the new Windows] more secure than its earlier versions,” he said.

For some of us, the result is the exact opposite.

EDITED TO ADD (1/11): Another opinion.

Posted on January 9, 2007 at 12:43 PMView Comments

U.S. Government to Encrypt All Laptops

This is a good idea:

To address the issue of data leaks of the kind we’ve seen so often in the last year because of stolen or missing laptops, writes Saqib Ali, the Feds are planning to use Full Disk Encryption (FDE) on all Government-owned computers.

“On June 23, 2006 a Presidential Mandate was put in place requiring all agency laptops to fully encrypt data on the HDD. The U.S. Government is currently conducting the largest single side-by-side comparison and competition for the selection of a Full Disk Encryption product. The selected product will be deployed on Millions of computers in the U.S. federal government space. This implementation will end up being the largest single implementation ever, and all of the information regarding the competition is in the public domain. The evaluation will come to an end in 90 days. You can view all the vendors competing and list of requirements.”

Certainly, encrypting everything is overkill, but it’s much easier than figuring out what to encrypt and what not to. And I really like that there is a open competition to choose which encryption program to use. It’s certainly a high-stakes competition among the vendors, but one that is likely to improve the security of all products. I’ve long said that one of the best things the government can do to improve computer security is to use its vast purchasing power to pressure vendors to improve their security. I would expect the winner to make a lot of sales outside of the contract, and for the losers to correct their deficiencies so they’ll do better next time.

Side note: Key escrow is a requirement, something that makes sense in a government or corporate application:

Capable of secure escrow and recovery of the symetric [sic] encryption key

I wonder if the NSA is involved in the evaluation at all, and if its analysis will be made public.

Posted on January 3, 2007 at 2:00 PMView Comments

Fukuyama on Secrecy

From the New York Times:

All new threats entail huge uncertainties. Then, as now, there was a pronounced tendency to assume the worst, and for the government to claim enormous discretion in protecting the American public. The Bush administration has consistently argued that it needs to be protected from Congressional oversight and media scrutiny. An example is the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of telephone traffic into and out of the United States. Rather than going to Congress and trying to negotiate changes to the law that regulates such activities, the administration simply grabbed that authority for itself, saying, in effect, “Trust us: if you knew what we know about the threat, you’d be perfectly happy to have us do what we’re doing.” In other areas, like the holding of prisoners in Guantanamo and interrogation methods used there and in the Middle East, one can only quote Moynihan on an earlier era: “As fears of Communist conspiracies and German subversion mounted, it was the U.S. government’s conduct that approached the illegal.”

Even if we do not at this juncture know the full scope of the threat we face from jihadist terrorism, it is certainly large enough to justify many changes in the way we conduct our lives, both at home and abroad. But the American government does have a track record in dealing with similar problems in the past, one suggesting that all American institutions—Congress, the courts, the news media—need to do their jobs in scrutinizing official behavior, and not take the easy way out of deferring to the executive. Past experience also suggests that the government would do far better to make public what it knows, as well as the limits of that knowledge, if we are to arrive at a balanced view of the challenges we face today.

Posted on October 12, 2006 at 6:54 AMView Comments

Indexes to NSA Publications Declassified and Online

In May 2003, Michael Ravnitzky submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Security Agency for a copy of the index to their historical reports at the Center for Cryptologic History and the index to certain journals: the NSA Technical Journal and the Cryptographic Quarterly. These journals had been mentioned in the literature but are not available to the public. Because he thought NSA might be reluctant to release the bibliographic indexes, he also asked for the table of contents to each issue.

The request took more than three years for them to process and declassify—sadly, not atypical—and during the process they asked if he would accept the indexes in lieu of the tables of contents pages: specifically, the cumulative indices that included all the previous material in the earlier indices. He agreed, and got them last month. The results are here.

This is just a sampling of some of the article titles from the NSA Technical Journal:

“The Arithmetic of a Generation Principle for an Electronic Key Generator” · “CATNIP: Computer Analysis – Target Networks Intercept Probability” · “Chatter Patterns: A Last Resort” · “COMINT Satellites – A Space Problem” · “Computers and Advanced Weapons Systems” · “Coupon Collecting and Cryptology” · “Cranks, Nuts, and Screwballs” · “A Cryptologic Fairy Tale” · “Don’t Be Too Smart” · “Earliest Applications of the Computer at NSA” · “Emergency Destruction of Documents” · “Extraterrestrial Intelligence” · “The Fallacy of the One-Time-Pad Excuse” · “GEE WHIZZER” · “The Gweeks Had a Gwoup for It” · “How to Visualize a Matrix” · “Key to the Extraterrestrial Messages” · “A Mechanical Treatment of Fibonacci Sequences” · “Q.E.D.- 2 Hours, 41 Minutes” · “SlGINT Implications of Military Oceanography” · “Some Problems and Techniques in Bookbreaking” · “Upgrading Selected US Codes and Ciphers with a Cover and Deception Capability” · “Weather: Its Role in Communications Intelligence” · “Worldwide Language Problems at NSA”

In the materials the NSA provided, they also included indices to two other publications: Cryptologic Spectrum and Cryptologic Almanac.

The indices to Cryptologic Quarterly and NSA Technical Journal have indices by title, author and keyword. The index to Cryptologic Spectrum has indices by author, title and issue.

Consider these bibliographic tools as stepping stones. If you want an article, send a FOIA request for it. Send a FOIA request for a dozen. There’s a lot of stuff here that would help elucidate the early history of the agency and some interesting cryptographic topics.

Thanks Mike, for doing this work.

Posted on September 26, 2006 at 12:58 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.