If recent reports are correct, regarding further leaked Snowden documents, it appears the National Security Agency is at it again. In a determined, and protracted, effort to dismantle the people’s civil liberties, the NSA has instigated a classified program, called Bullrun. With the NSA’s ever-pervasive attempts to circumvent Internet privacy, one must wonder who will win the hard-fought war, as even the likes of Google race to encrypt their data flow?
The news comes in the wake of an article, published by The New York Times, which discusses the contents of classified documents that were leaked by the notorious, ex-NSA contractor, Edward Snowden.
These documents indicate an intensification in the NSA’s attempts to snoop on its unsuspecting public. During the turn of the century, the NSA became acutely aware that a number of encryption tools were beginning to conceal elements of data, bandied across the web. In retaliation, the NSA invested huge sums of money, ranging in the billions, to thwart these encryption methods, deploying the technical expertise of covert groups to do so.
All the while, the agency were putting in place a series of super-computers, built with the sole purpose of cracking codes. The NSA also colluded with a number of high-profile technology companies across the globe to ensure “entry points” were added to their distributed products; alas, these technology companies have not been named and shamed, as they were not included within the leaked documents.
Shockingly, some of these organizations were powerless to resist the NSA’s powerful machinations. Some of the targeted companies were intimidated into handing over their encryption keys. After achieving this goal, the NSA implemented a series of “back doors,” used to circumvent the encryption tools that so many technology companies had designed to protect the privacy of their customers.
In addition, the NSA sought to strike mutual relationships between a number of Internet service providers; if a company failed to capitulate to the spy agency’s requests, court orders were then set in motion to force an organization’s hand. It has even been claimed that the NSA was involved in pilfering encryption keys from the more resilient companies.
One of the most notorious targets included Microsoft, who quickly relented to what it considered to be “lawful” requests. It is thought that the NSA has an entire database full of encryption keys for most of the major, commercial products sold globally. The New York Times seems to suggest that this is achieved through hacking into the relevant company’s database, where the keys are stored, and simply taking them.
This knowledge now helps us to understand precisely how the NSA was able to perform its snooping activities. Legally, the NSA is also able to keep such encrypted data for as long as it takes to successfully perform its decryption, or investigate some of its features.
In defence of its actions, the NSA stresses that these counter-measures are simply a means to stay ahead of its enemies, both foreign and domestic. The NSA also seeks to uphold these rules on the basis of terrorist threats; they argue it is imperative that terror plots cannot be concealed by encryption methods. Furthermore, the NSA also justifies these efforts based upon spy competition from other superpowers, including the Russians and Chinese.
The NSA has been rigorously involved in overcoming some of the most common forms of encryption methods utilized throughout the United States, including those of virtual private networks, 4G network encryptions for mobile technologies and the Secure Sockets Layer cryptographic protocols. This essentially means that the NSA is able to hack into the communications of the average American or, for that matter, anyone around the world using these platforms.
The NSA’s snooping “duties,” however, could have wide-reaching implications. If the NSA builds these backdoors, then other individuals and organizations could be capable of exploiting the same loopholes. Frankly, the NSA’s actions, conducted under the auspices of protecting the American people from the threat of terrorism and foreign enemies, may have destabilized the security and privacy of the very people they claim to want to protect.
The Bullrun program, named after a civil war battle in the U.S., has been jointly collaborated over by what The New York Times refers to as the “Five Eyes,” an assembly of countries, which includes the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, of course, America.
It is unclear how Mr. Snowden managed to obtain these documents, as he was not granted access to the Bullrun program.
According to analysts, the NSA’s latest Bullrun program has managed to surreptitiously achieve what they were unable to do, during the 1990s. This was a period when the “Clipper Chip” had been proposed, which would have facilitated the spy agency’s immediate access to all encryption keys; little did people know, they would do so in secret.
With the NSA’s project Bullrun flattening worldwide encryption methods, and some small companies closing down rather than submitting to the demands of the infamous spy organization, it would seem the general public stands to lose this apparent war against privacy. Although the Snowden saga rages on, is there anything that can be done against such a powerful nemesis?
By: James Fenner