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.