Heartbleed Suspicion And NSA Denial Show Why NSA's Dual Offense/Defensive Role Must End

from the it's-a-problem dept

We’ve talked for a while how dangerous and ridiculous it is that the NSA has a dual role as both handling “offensive” attacks and (supposedly) stopping incoming attacks in a “defensive” role. While technically, the NSA is supposed to be handling the “defensive” side while the US Cyber Command handles the offensive, there is no real separation between the two. The US Cyber Command is headquartered within the NSA and is run by the same person. Despite multiple recommendations to split the roles, the White House refuses to do so. Meanwhile, the NSA itself has been doing more and more offensive work anyway.

However, the claim late last week that the NSA knew about and exploited Heartbleed, followed by the quick denial by the NSA, really puts an exclamation point on how untenable this dual role is for the NSA. It’s difficult to take the NSA seriously given the competing interests within it. Add to this, President Obama basically giving his broad approval for the NSA to exploit security flaws it finds, and you have a very dangerous setup for your average internet user. The NSA, despite its job, will have little interest in actually protecting internet users.

Julian Sanchez summarizes the issue nicely by pointing out that the two roles are simply incompatible:

But the denial itself serves as a reminder that NSA’s two fundamental missions – one defensive, one offensive – are fundamentally incompatible, and that they can’t both be handled credibly by the same government agency.

The NSA’s history of being less than forthright in the past, as well as many of the Snowden revelations, combined with its dual role, simply means that most people won’t believe the NSA’s denial about Heartbleed, even if it was much more strongly worded than earlier denials. If the NSA’s role, however, were made much clearer, such that it was only focused on protecting systems, without the offensive elements, then it would be both a lot more believable, and a lot more trustworthy. However, the very fact that the administration (and the NSA) appear to have little interest in moving in this direction says a lot about how much they really prioritize protecting our computer systems.

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Comments on “Heartbleed Suspicion And NSA Denial Show Why NSA's Dual Offense/Defensive Role Must End”

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17 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Obama: Nope.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/white-house-to-preserve-controversial-policy-on-nsa-cyber-command-leadership/2013/12/13/4bb56a48-6403-11e3-a373-0f9f2d1c2b61_story.html

But I agree. This would be the single greatest “reform” of NSA they could practically do right now. Merging US Cyber Command and NSA was a grave mistake, and a major source of corruption of NSA’s mission to protect US infrastructure.

Anonymous Coward says:

They're either lying or incompetent

If the NSA knew about Heartbleed and didn’t speak up: they’re lying.

If the NSA didn’t know about Heartbleed, they’re incompetent.

(OpenSSL is one of the most widely used pieces of security-related software. Of course the NSA should have people who do nothing but scrutinize every change to it and target the modified code for attacks. Given their enormous financial, personnel and computing resources, they should have found this bug in a week.)

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:

Uh, much of the “But terrorists!!11eleventy-one!” scare-mongering is being done by private contractors that have a strong interest in turning a healthy profit. Our representatives are bought and paid for by private contrators with a strong interest in protecting their business models, which means scare-mongering in Congress to get those sweet, sweet, $$$s.

They create (or pretend there is) a problem, then promise to solve it for a small consideration. Haven’t you noticed this?

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Isn't Offense supposed to be the CIA's job?

I mean, the NSA’s self-declared mission is to monitor data in order to stop potential terrorist threats (more or less). That’s a defensive role.

The CIA is… well, the CIA. That whole “carrying out/overseeing covert ops” part of their job description kinda makes them seem the default offensive role [but only in international matters of course], which means Cyber Command should be part of the CIA instead.

Although the thought of having the CIA control Cyber Command instead of the NSA is not very comforting…

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