The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Redeeming NIST's Reputation

Bill Would Ban NSA from Undermining NIST Crypto Standards
Redeeming NIST's Reputation
Rep. Alan Grayson's amendment would bar NSA meddling on NIST standards.

If the NSA's meddling in NIST cryptography standards soiled the reputation of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an amendment approved by the House of Representatives could help restore it.

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"This amendment ... should go a long way toward recovering the lost reputation of the National Institute of Standards and Technology," says Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

On a voice vote, the House on June 19 approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the law that finances Defense Department operations, which would prevent the National Security Agency from spending appropriated funds to alter NIST IT security standards to allow the e-spy agency to snoop.

"It's only common sense that we should not want taxpayers' dollars to be appropriated to one agency to be used to deliberately and actively subvert the work of another agency and at the same time destroy the privacy and the liberty and the personal property of our own citizens," says Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., the amendment sponsor (see Will NIST-NSA Cooperation Continue?).

Cryptographer Bruce Schneier and others contend a NIST random-number standard, Special Publication 800-90, contains a backdoor to allow the NSA to spy on organizations employing a specific random bit generator, known as Dual_EC_DRBG. After media reports last fall about the alleged exploitation, NIST temporarily withdrew the guidance and dropped Dual_EC_DRBG (see NIST to Review Crypto Guidance Methods).

In Eye of the Beholder

How sullied was NIST's reputation? That depends on the beholder. Schneier says NIST's reputation was "badly bruised" by the NSA interference, though he believes this was an isolated case. Still, he says, "no one knows if they can be trusted."

And NIST did something it rarely does: withdraw a piece of guidance. In revising the guidance, and to bolster its credibility, NIST called on stakeholders to suggest ways to improve it. That process resulted in NIST drafting Interagency Report 7977: NIST Cryptographic Standards and Guidelines Development Process. In May, with NIST's backing, its primary advisory committee named a panel of noted cryptographers, academics and business leaders to provide an independent assessment of the way it develops cryptographic standards and guidelines (see Experts to Assess NIST Cryptography Program).

The NSA employs some of the world's best cryptographers, so federal law requires NIST to collaborate with the intelligence agency on developing its encryption standards. "The Grayson amendment was pretty artfully written to still allow the NSA to provide expert advice, when necessary, but to prevent the NSA from undermining cryptography standards in the future," says Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a not-for-profit group that champions online civil liberties.

Even defenders of the NSA backed the amendment. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., characterized as "ridiculous" a widely held belief among cryptographers that the NSA deliberately sabotaged NIST standards. Because the legislation doesn't bar NSA-NIST collaboration on standards, he voted for it. The NSA "participation in setting standards is a no brainer," says Frelinghuysen, who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. "You want the standards to be designed by the people who best understand the threat. They recommend the standards that they themselves use."

Differing Duties

True, but as Holt points out, the NSA has dual and perhaps conflicting responsibilities: to build the best encryption to defend government and military systems and to break encryption to intercept electronic communications that could harm the nation. The amendment is designed to clarify NSA's responsibilities.

"These dual roles caused real problems for American standards and hence for American technology and American companies," Holt says. "It's unfortunate that NIST, which is supposed to be an impartial arbiter of national and even global standards for technology, was effectively used to propagate defective encryption standards. This amendment, I think, will help correct that."

Congress will pass and President Obama will sign the National Defense Authorization Act. But it's not certain the Grayson amendment will survive a House-Senate conference committee to work out the final appropriations bill. The Obama administration has yet to weigh in whether it supports the amendment. "We're reviewing the language in the amendment," says Laura Lucas Magnuson, a White House spokeswoman.

Schneier says the amendment is needed, but isn't optimistic it will survive the legislative process. "The NSA really has destroyed trust on the Internet and that destruction of trust is toxic," he says. "... I'm glad there are some people in Congress that are doing this; it's really important domestically and internationally. We need to be trustworthy and if we're not, we really hurt the entire global Internet."

Let's hope the amendment survives the Senate vote, and President Obama signs it. We'll never fully know what the NSA does. The amendment would not just bolster NIST's reputation, but help the repute of the NSA, federal government and the nation. Congress and the president should go on record to declare that meddling in security standards is un-American.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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