4Security and Technology

The NSA’s Cryptographic Capabilities

Originally published in Wired.com, September 4, 2013

The latest Snowden document is the US intelligence “black budget.” There’s a lot of information in the few pages the Washington Post decided to publish, including an introduction by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. In it, he drops a tantalizing hint: “Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic.”

Honestly, I’m skeptical. Whatever the NSA has up its top-secret sleeves, the mathematics of cryptography will still be the most secure part of any encryption system. I worry a lot more about poorly designed cryptographic products, software bugs, bad passwords, companies that collaborate with the NSA to leak all or part of the keys, and insecure computers and networks. Those are where the real vulnerabilities are, and where the NSA spends the bulk of its efforts.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this rumor. In a WIRED article last year, longtime NSA-watcher James Bamford wrote:

According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US.

We have no further information from Clapper, Snowden, or this other source of Bamford’s. ...

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