[LINK] Guardian Report: NSA & GCHQ

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Sun Sep 8 22:16:11 AEST 2013

Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security

and: www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/us/nsa-foils-much-internet-encryption.html

* NSA and GCHQ unlock encryption used to protect emails, banking and 
medical records

* $250m-a-year US program works covertly with tech companies to insert 
weaknesses into products

* Security experts say programs 'undermine the fabric of the internet'

US and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the 
online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect 
the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, 
according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward 

The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart 
GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees that internet companies have 
given consumers to reassure them that their communications, online banking 
and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments.

The agencies, the documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in 
their systematic and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest 
threats to their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – "the 
use of ubiquitous encryption across the internet".

Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA control over setting of 
international encryption standards, the use of supercomputers to break 
encryption with "brute force", and – the most closely guarded secret of all 
– collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers 

Through these covert partnerships, the agencies have inserted secret 
vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial 
encryption software.

The files, from both the NSA and GCHQ, were obtained by the Guardian, and 
the details are being published today in partnership with the New York 
Times and ProPublica. They reveal:

* A 10-year NSA program against encryption technologies made a breakthrough 
in 2010 which made "vast amounts" of data collected through internet cable 
taps newly "exploitable".

* The NSA spends $250m a year on a program which, among other goals, works 
with technology companies to "covertly influence" their product designs.

* The secrecy of their capabilities against encryption is closely guarded, 
with analysts warned: "Do not ask about or speculate on sources or 

* The NSA describes strong decryption programs as the "price of admission 
for the US to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace".

* A GCHQ team has been working to develop ways into encrypted traffic on 
the "big four" service providers, named as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and 

The agencies insist that the ability to defeat encryption is vital to their 
core missions of counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence gathering.

But security experts accused them of attacking the internet itself and the 
privacy of all users. "Cryptography forms the basis for trust online," said 
Bruce Schneier, an encryption specialist and fellow at Harvard's Berkman 
Center for Internet and Society. 

"By deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to 
eavesdrop, the NSA is undermining the very fabric of the internet." 

Classified briefings between the agencies celebrate their success at 
"defeating network security and privacy".

"For the past decade, NSA has lead [sic] an aggressive, multi-pronged 
effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies," stated a 
2010 GCHQ document. "Vast amounts of encrypted internet data which have up 
till now been discarded are now exploitable."

An internal agency memo noted that among British analysts shown a 
presentation on the NSA's progress: "Those not already briefed were 

The breakthrough, which was not described in detail in the documents, meant 
the intelligence agencies were able to monitor "large amounts" of data 
flowing through the world's fibre-optic cables and break its encryption, 
despite assurances from internet company executives that this data was 
beyond the reach of government.

The key component of the NSA's battle against encryption, its collaboration 
with technology companies, is detailed in the US intelligence community's 
top-secret 2013 budget request under the heading "Sigint [signals 
intelligence] enabling".

Funding for the program – $254.9m for this year – dwarfs that of the Prism 
program, which operates at a cost of $20m a year, according to previous NSA 
documents. Since 2011, the total spending on Sigint enabling has topped 
$800m. The program "actively engages US and foreign IT industries to 
covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products' 
designs", the document states. None of the companies involved in such 
partnerships are named; these details are guarded by still higher levels of 

Among other things, the program is designed to "insert vulnerabilities into 
commercial encryption systems". These would be known to the NSA, but to no 
one else, including ordinary customers, who are tellingly referred to in 
the document as "adversaries".

"These design changes make the systems in question exploitable through 
Sigint collection … with foreknowledge of the modification. To the consumer 
and other adversaries, however, the systems' security remains intact."

The document sets out in clear terms the program's broad aims, including 
making commercial encryption software "more tractable" to NSA attacks by 
"shaping" the worldwide marketplace and continuing efforts to break into 
the encryption used by the next generation of 4G phones.

Among the specific accomplishments for 2013, the NSA expects the program to 
obtain access to "data flowing through a hub for a major communications 
provider" and to a "major internet peer-to-peer voice and text 
communications system".

Technology companies maintain that they work with the intelligence agencies 
only when legally compelled to do so. The Guardian has previously reported 
that Microsoft co-operated with the NSA to circumvent encryption on the 
Outlook.com email and chat services. The company insisted that it was 
obliged to comply with "existing or future lawful demands" when designing 
its products.

The documents show that the agency has already achieved another of the 
goals laid out in the budget request: to influence the international 
standards upon which encryption systems rely.

Independent security experts have long suspected that the NSA has been 
introducing weaknesses into security standards, a fact confirmed for the 
first time by another secret document. It shows the agency worked covertly 
to get its own version of a draft security standard issued by the US 
National Institute of Standards and Technology approved for worldwide use 
in 2006.

"Eventually, NSA became the sole editor," the document states.

The NSA's codeword for its decryption program, Bullrun, is taken from a 
major battle of the American civil war. Its British counterpart, Edgehill, 
is named after the first major engagement of the English civil war, more 
than 200 years earlier.

A classification guide for NSA employees and contractors on Bullrun 
outlines in broad terms its goals.

"Project Bullrun deals with NSA's abilities to defeat the encryption used 
in specific network communication technologies. Bullrun involves multiple 
sources, all of which are extremely sensitive." The document reveals that 
the agency has capabilities against widely used online protocols, such as 
HTTPS, voice-over-IP and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), used to protect online 
shopping and banking.

The document also shows that the NSA's Commercial Solutions Center, 
ostensibly the body through which technology companies can have their 
security products assessed and presented to prospective government buyers, 
has another, more clandestine role.

It is used by the NSA to "to leverage sensitive, co-operative relationships 
with specific industry partners" to insert vulnerabilities into security 
products. Operatives were warned that this information must be kept top 
secret "at a minimum".

A more general NSA classification guide reveals more detail on the agency's 
deep partnerships with industry, and its ability to modify products. It 
cautions analysts that two facts must remain top secret: that NSA makes 
modifications to commercial encryption software and devices "to make them 
exploitable", and that NSA "obtains cryptographic details of commercial 
cryptographic information security systems through industry relationships".

The agencies have not yet cracked all encryption technologies, however, the 
documents suggest. Snowden appeared to confirm this during a live Q&A with 
Guardian readers in June. "Encryption works. Properly implemented strong 
crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on," he said 
before warning that NSA can frequently find ways around it as a result of 
weak security on the computers at either end of the communication.

The documents are scattered with warnings over the importance of 
maintaining absolute secrecy around decryption capabilities.

Strict guidelines were laid down at the GCHQ complex in Cheltenham, 
Gloucestershire, on how to discuss projects relating to decryption. 
Analysts were instructed: "Do not ask about or speculate on sources or 
methods underpinning Bullrun." This informaton was so closely guarded, 
according to one document, that even those with access to aspects of the 
program were warned: "There will be no 'need to know'."

The agencies were supposed to be "selective in which contractors are given 
exposure to this information", but it was ultimately seen by Snowden, one 
of 850,000 people in the US with top-secret clearance.A 2009 GCHQ document 
spells out the significant potential consequences of any leaks, including 
"damage to industry relationships".

"Loss of confidence in our ability to adhere to confidentiality agreements 
would lead to loss of access to proprietary information that can save time 
when developing new capability," intelligence workers were told. Somewhat 
less important to GCHQ was the public's trust which was marked as a 
moderate risk, the document stated.

"Some exploitable products are used by the general public; some exploitable 
weaknesses are well known eg possibility of recovering poorly chosen 
passwords," it said. "Knowledge that GCHQ exploits these products and the 
scale of our capability would raise public awareness generating unwelcome 
publicity for us and our political masters."

The decryption effort is particularly important to GCHQ. Its strategic 
advantage from its Tempora program – direct taps on transatlantic fibre-
optic cables of major telecommunications corporations – was in danger of 
eroding as more and more big internet companies encrypted their traffic, 
responding to customer demands for guaranteed privacy.

Without attention, the 2010 GCHQ document warned, the UK's "Sigint utility 
will degrade as information flows changes, new applications are developed 
(and deployed) at pace and widespread encryption becomes more commonplace." 
Documents show that Edgehill's initial aim was to decode the encrypted 
traffic certified by three major (unnamed) internet companies and 30 types 
of Virtual Private Network (VPN) – used by businesses to provide secure 
remote access to their systems. By 2015, GCHQ hoped to have cracked the 
codes used by 15 major internet companies, and 300 VPNs.

Another program, codenamed Cheesy Name, was aimed at singling out 
encryption keys, known as 'certificates', that might be vulnerable to being 
cracked by GCHQ supercomputers.

Analysts on the Edgehill project were working on ways into the networks of 
major webmail providers as part of the decryption project. A quarterly 
update from 2012 notes the project's team "continue to work on 
understanding" the big four communication providers, named in the document 
as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, adding "work has predominantly been 
focused this quarter on Google due to new access opportunities being 

To help secure an insider advantage, GCHQ also established a Humint 
Operations Team (HOT). Humint, short for "human intelligence" refers to 
information gleaned directly from sources or undercover agents.

This GCHQ team was, according to an internal document, "responsible for 
identifying, recruiting and running covert agents in the global 
telecommunications industry."

"This enables GCHQ to tackle some of its most challenging targets," the 
report said. The efforts made by the NSA and GCHQ against encryption 
technologies may have negative consequences for all internet users, experts 

"Backdoors are fundamentally in conflict with good security," said 
Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at 
the American Civil Liberties Union. "Backdoors expose all users of a 
backdoored system, not just intelligence agency targets, to heightened risk 
of data compromise." This is because the insertion of backdoors in a 
software product, particularly those that can be used to obtain unencrypted 
user communications or data, significantly increases the difficulty of 
designing a secure product."

This was a view echoed in a recent paper by Stephanie Pell, a former 
prosecutor at the US Department of Justice and non-resident fellow at the 
Center for Internet and Security at Stanford Law School.

"[An] encrypted communications system with a lawful interception back door 
is far more likely to result in the catastrophic loss of communications 
confidentiality than a system that never has access to the unencrypted 
communications of its users," she states.

Intelligence officials asked the Guardian, New York 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 three organisations removed some specific facts but decided to publish 
the story because of the value of a public debate about government actions 
that weaken the most powerful tools for protecting the privacy of internet 
users in the US and

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