Cybersecurity

What is the DoD's Position on Backdoors in Security Systems?

By Bruce Schneier
Wednesday, June 24, 2015, 10:54 AM

In May, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an address at the Joint Service Academies Cyber Security Summit at West Point. After he spoke for twenty minutes on the importance of Internet security and a good national defense, I was able to ask him a question (32:42 mark) about security versus surveillance:

Bruce Schneier: I'd like to hear you talk about this need to get beyond signatures and the more robust cyber defense and ask the industry to provide these technologies to make the infrastructure more secure. My question is, the only definition of "us" that makes sense is the world, is everybody. Any technologies that we've developed and built will be used by everyone -- nation-state and non-nation-state. So anything we do to increase our resilience, infrastructure, and security will naturally make Admiral Rogers's both intelligence and attack jobs much harder. Are you okay with that?

Admiral James A. Winnefeld: Yes. I think Mike's okay with that, also. That's a really, really good question. We call that IGL. Anyone know what IGL stands for? Intel gain-loss. And there's this constant tension between the operational community and the intelligence community when a military action could cause the loss of a critical intelligence node. We live this every day. In fact, in ancient times, when we were collecting actual signals in the air, we would be on the operational side, "I want to take down that emitter so it'll make it safer for my airplanes to penetrate the airspace," and they're saying, "No, you've got to keep that emitter up, because I'm getting all kinds of intelligence from it." So this is a familiar problem. But I think we all win if our networks are more secure. And I think I would rather live on the side of secure networks and a harder problem for Mike on the intelligence side than very vulnerable networks and an easy problem for Mike. And part of that -- it's not only the right thing do, but part of that goes to the fact that we are more vulnerable than any other country in the world, on our dependence on cyber. I'm also very confident that Mike has some very clever people working for him. He might actually still be able to get some work done. But it's an excellent question. It really is.

It's a good answer, and one firmly on the side of not introducing security vulnerabilities, backdoors, key-escrow systems, or anything that weakens Internet systems. It speaks to what I have seen as a split in the the Second Crypto War, between the NSA and the FBI on building secure systems versus building systems with surveillance capabilities. I have written about this before:

But here's the problem: technological capabilities cannot distinguish based on morality, nationality, or legality; if the US government is able to use a backdoorin a communications system to spy on its enemies, the Chinese government can use the same backdoor to spy on its dissidents. Even worse, modern computer technology is inherently democratizing. Today's NSA secrets become tomorrow's PhD theses and the next day's hacker tools. As long as we're all using the same computers, phones, social networking platforms, and computer networks, a vulnerability that allows us to spy also allows us to be spied upon. We can't choose a world where the US gets to spy but China doesn't, or even a world where governments get to spy and criminals don't. We need to choose, as a matter of policy, communications systems that are secure for all users, or ones that are vulnerable to all attackers. It's security or surveillance.

NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers was in the audience (he spoke earlier), and I saw him nodding at Winnefeld's answer. Two weeks later, at CyCon in Tallinn, Rogers gave the opening keynote, and he seemed to be saying the opposite. From a ZDNET article about his remarks:

"Can we create some mechanism where within this legal framework there's a means to access information that directly relates to the security of our respective nations, even as at the same time we are mindful we have got to protect the rights of our individual citizens?"

[...]

Rogers said a framework to allow law enforcement agencies to gain access to communications is in place within the phone system in the United States and other areas, so "why can't we create a similar kind of framework within the internet and the digital age?"

He added: "I certainly have great respect for those that would argue that they most important thing is to ensure the privacy of our citizens and we shouldn't allow any means for the government to access information. I would argue that's not in the nation's best long term interest, that we've got to create some structure that should enable us to do that mindful that it has to be done in a legal way and mindful that it shouldn't be something arbitrary."

Does Winnefeld know that Rogers is contradicting him? Can someone ask JCS about this?

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