Prominent cryptography and security researchers deplore NSA's surveillance activities

Members of academia urge the U.S. government to reform surveillance practices

Some of the most prominent cryptography and security researchers in U.S. academia have condemned the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance practices and called for change.

"Media reports since last June have revealed that the US government conducts domestic and international surveillance on a massive scale, that it engages in deliberate and covert weakening of Internet security standards, and that it pressures US technology companies to deploy backdoors and other data-collection features," the researchers said in an open letter published Friday. "As leading members of the US cryptography and information-security research communities, we deplore these practices and urge that they be changed."

The letter was signed by 53 people, most of them professors at top U.S. universities and research institutions. The list includes some of the biggest names in computer science, technology policy and cryptography like Hal Abelson, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation; Edward Felten, the director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and former chief technologist for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission; MIT professor Ronald Rivest, a pioneer of modern public-key cryptography and of one the creators of the widely used RSA encryption algorithm; and renowned cryptographer Bruce Schneier.

Dutch cryptographer Niels Ferguson is also on the list. Ferguson was one of the two Microsoft employees who in 2007 reported that the Dual_EC_DRBG pseudorandom number generator standardized by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology had a potential backdoor. According to media reports based on documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA pushed this flawed random number generator as a standard as part of its efforts to defeat encryption.

"Inserting backdoors, sabotaging standards, and tapping commercial data-center links provide bad actors, foreign and domestic, opportunities to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities," the letter said. The choice is not between allowing the NSA to spy or not, but between having a communications infrastructure that's vulnerable to attack at its core and one that's by default secure for all users, they said.

"Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals, but we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life," the researchers said in the letter. "We urge the US government to reject society-wide surveillance and the subversion of security technology, to adopt state-of-the-art, privacy-preserving technology, and to ensure that new policies, guided by enunciated principles, support human rights, trustworthy commerce, and technical innovation."

The letter also called for the U.S. government to subject all mass-surveillance activities to public scrutiny, saying that the threat they pose to privacy and democracy is evident, while the value they have in preventing terrorism is unclear. They noted that the five principles described on the reformgovernmentsurveillance.com website that was set up by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo in response to the NSA surveillance revelations provide a good starting point for finding a way forward.

According to those principles, governments should, among other things, limit surveillance to specific, known users rather than collect Internet communications in bulk; set up an independent court review system that includes an adversarial process; allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information; and permit the transfer of data across borders, working with other governments to resolve conflicts of legislation governing lawful requests for data.

According to Matthew Green, a cryptography research professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and one of the people who signed the letter, the joint statement is indicative of the trust the NSA has lost among academics.

"Up until 2013 if you'd asked most US security researchers for their opinions on NSA, you would, of course, have heard a range of views," Green said Saturday in a blog post. "But you also might have heard notes of (perhaps grudging) respect. This is because many of the NSA's public activities have been obviously in everyone's interest -- helping to fund research and secure our information systems."

Even when there was evidence of potential "unfair dealing" by the NSA, as in the case of Dual_EC_DRBG, most researchers dismissed the allegations as conspiracy theories, Green said. "We believed the NSA would stay between the lines. Putting backdoors into US information standards was possible, of course. But would they do it? We thought nobody would be that foolish. We were wrong."

Green feels that NSA's actions might have long-term implications for the society as a whole.

"Our economic and electronic security depend very much on the cooperation of academia, industry and private citizens," he said. "The NSA's actions have destroyed this trust. And ironically, that makes us all less safe."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags Government use of ITNational Security Agencyonline safetysecurityencryptionlegislationgovernmentprivacy

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Matthew Stivala

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer is a great device that fits perfectly into my fast paced and mobile lifestyle. My first impression of the printer itself was how incredibly compact and sleek the device was.

Armand Abogado

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

Wireless printing from my iPhone was also a handy feature, the whole experience was quick and seamless with no setup requirements - accessed through the default iOS printing menu options.

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?