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Feds Beg NY Times, Pro Publica Not To Reveal That They've Inserted Backdoors Into Internet Encryption

from the too-fucking-bad dept

We already wrote about the latest reports coming out of the Snowden leaks, concerning how the NSA and GCHQ have effectively backdoored their way into breaking various encryption schemes by writing the standards themselves and recruiting internal spies within companies to covertly inject backdoors. The reporting on these documents was done jointly by The Guardian, the NY Times and Pro Publica. However, the NY Times coverage has one interesting tidbit not in the Guardian:

Intelligence officials asked The Times and ProPublica not to publish this article, saying that it might prompt foreign targets to switch to new forms of encryption or communications that would be harder to collect or read. The news organizations removed some specific facts but decided to publish the article because of the value of a public debate about government actions that weaken the most powerful tools for protecting the privacy of Americans and others.

Pro Publica, for its part, put up a thorough and detailed explanation for why it chose to publish the story, which is well worth reading:

The story, we believe, is an important one. It shows that the expectations of millions of Internet users regarding the privacy of their electronic communications are mistaken. These expectations guide the practices of private individuals and businesses, most of them innocent of any wrongdoing. The potential for abuse of such extraordinary capabilities for surveillance, including for political purposes, is considerable. The government insists it has put in place checks and balances to limit misuses of this technology. But the question of whether they are effective is far from resolved and is an issue that can only be debated by the people and their elected representatives if the basic facts are revealed.

This is true in so many ways. As the NY Times report notes, there had been a public debate about all of this in the 90s, when there was the big fight over the Clipper Chip, an NSA-created form of encryption with backdoors. That fight ended with the NSA losing… and now it appears that they just ignored that and effectively spent the past few decades doing the same exact thing, but in secret. That deserves public exposure and discussion.

Pro Publica points out that this country is founded on a fundamental belief that you can’t just “trust” the government, and yet the government is asking us to do exactly that here, as they prove time and time again not to be credible or worthy of trust.

There are those who, in good faith, believe that we should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea — championed by such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat. The sort of work ProPublica does — watchdog journalism — is a key element in helping the public play this role.

American history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked power operating in secret. Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again. We need a system that can withstand such challenges. That system requires public knowledge of the power the government possesses. Today’s story is a step in that direction.

Kudos to all three publications for taking this step. It’s unfortunate that they need to do this, but it’s a sad statement on the way the US and UK governments have acted.

Update: The Guardian also mentions that intelligence officials asked them not to publish.

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Companies: ny times, pro publica

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Comments on “Feds Beg NY Times, Pro Publica Not To Reveal That They've Inserted Backdoors Into Internet Encryption”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“The news organizations removed some specific facts” which is a pity as those specific facts were likely exactly which encryption schemes had been broken, or had had backdoors placed into them, or what companies had been infiltrated.

In other words the sort of details required to circumvent encryption broken or compromised by the NSA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Having read through the NYT article only once so far, I am left with the impression that a cryptographer could decipher the method by which the NSA circumvented message confidentiality.

For example, from this:

“Cryptographers have long suspected that the agency planted vulnerabilities in a standard adopted in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology…”

NIST, conveniently, has a timeline for it’s standards.

However, the single one approved in 2006 is specific to the government or government contractors so it is not the general breakthrough the NSA has touted. It also points out that the algorithms are public and some independent cryptographer is going to find a planted weakness sooner or later.

kitsune361 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The most common key exchange method for VPNs (and WPA Enterprise wireless), MSCHAPv2, is laughable weakness that was outed last year in a presentation at Defcon last year by Moxie Marlinspike. (see: https://www.cloudcracker.com/blog/2012/07/29/cracking-ms-chap-v2/ )

It would not surprise me in the slightest if such an obvious flaw as this (srsly, read the blog post) would be intentional.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:


You do realize you’re trying to convince the paper who broke the fucking PENTAGON PAPERS not to run with a big, juicy, earth-shaking revelation like the fact that the NSA’s directly tapped into the fucking Internet and is breaking encryption codes with programs like Project BullRun?

Seriously, how STUPID are you people?

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Re: Re: Feds

Perhaps, but I’m sticking with stupid here because of one thing:

The NYT has access to the Snowden Documents, which are looking more and more like they’re going to be the biggest scandal since Watergate/Pentagon Papers. The paper knows that they’re literally sitting on a goldmine here, and so do the Feds, who are rightly terrified about it. A “fourth estate” that doesn’t answer to the government’s beck and call is a dangerous opponent. Especially when the paper is immune to the government’s threats (thanks to New York Times Co. v. the United States [1971]).

Best part: smaller, local papers tend to run the stories published by the NYT, so there’s a good chance we might see this popping up in the physical paper come Friday morning.

As the Zen Master says, “We’ll see.”

Anonymous Coward says:

i find it strange that the UK government, being in bed and ‘on the bottom’ with the USA has as yet not been summoned to explain it’s actions to the EU. instead, everything that the USG seems to be slowing down, if not stopping, the UKG is picking up the pace. that is as worrying as what the USG has already done. even the so called ‘inspection’ of GCHQ was said to be ‘not breaking the law’. if anyone believes that, they are as stupid as those putting out the bullshit information! the UKG are as far into this as the USG. they are willing partners to the mass surveillance and need to be as screwed over it as the USG does. there isn’t that long to go before the next UK election. with the monumental fuck up the government has made of the economy, the number of people and families that have been pushed below the poverty line in the UK, while the already rich just kept on as if nothing had happened, the Conservatives could easily find themselves in deep, deep shit!!

Anonymous Coward says:

I had a couple of thoughts inspired by the NYT article. From the stuxnet incident, two certificates, used for signing code, were mysteriously acquired and had been utilized to install the stuxnet code. This might be one of the paths under the Bullrun program. The other was talked about by Ken Thompson (designer of Unix) back in 1983 in his paper “Reflections on Trusting Trust”. I think I will go re-read that. I recommend it to anyone.

Andrew Lee says:

2008 – 2012 I’d call bullshit on this and tell them they’re being overly paranoid.

2013 – I’m sitting here right now thinking this is no surprise. That said, the feeling this gives me is unique like no other. It’s an combination of shame, sadness, disbelief, anger, helplessness, confusion, disgust, and fear. It’s the children who will pay for our government turning commie on us because at some point down the road we’ll have no freedom left.

I am glad I have no kids and really I’d never bring one into this fucked up country. Don’t get me wrong I fucking love the USA and what it’s supposed to stand for. There was a lot of of bloodshed to get us here and it’s down right offensive to think they’re destroying everything we fought so hard for.

Those pioneers laid their fucking lives down so we could be free and prosper and this is how we repay them?

I don’t have faith in humanity anymore, and at the rate we’re going we’ll be lucky to make it to the year 2250 without exterminating ourselves.


hybridpollo (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Damn, that’s the exact way I feel. I have lost an incredible amount of faith and respect for the US Govt and the clowns running it while those officials who strive for a better state of the entire country get shoved aside as outcasts in Washington while we are left with these people who I would not trust running my local subway with.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

About time

That the NY Times stood up for what they used to believe in: journalistic integrity.

The government actually believes that just because they asked the Times nicely to not print these things that the Times will cower?

I should hope to high heaven not.

They’re finally getting their groove back. Maybe it’s still not too late.

But I wonder if it isn’t anyway. After all, the government’s been getting away with it for all these years and now they’re outraged that we’re outraged?

Silly us for believing that we could trust them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Because Obama is a current president, and it’s easy to paint opposition and criticism of him as politically charged/bent. A year ago, wouldn’t you have let your eyes glaze over any time someone started talking about Obama’s wrongdoing and how bad he is? All because there’s been so much ridiculous mudslinging that you can’t discern legitimate concerns from all that noise?

Twirrim says:

The missed point?

Interesting that the article only looks at the government perspective of this.

What should be of similar concern, even if we take the naive route of trusting the government, is that if the weakness is there someone else very malicious might have discovered it and might be exploiting it; including the very types of people they’re supposed to be protecting the nation from. It’s arrogant and stupid at best to believe you’re the only entity who’ll be able to exploit it.

In seeking to achieve surveilance capabilities, they’ve exposed billions of people to untold risk.

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