Thursday, August 8, 2013


NSA:U.S. Code Agency Is Jostling for Civilian Turf,Published:1-24-1994

Published: January 24, 1994


The National Security Agency is trying to establish a standard for electronically scrambling computer communications, a move that would go far beyond the agency's usual military and intelligence domain to include civilian activities like electronic tax returns and computerized medical payments.

The plan by the N.S.A., which may be announced as early as today, worries business executives and privacy advocates, who fear Government encroachment. 

And some officials in the Clinton Administration believe that the N.S.A. is overstepping its bounds.

The highly secret Federal agency is responsible for electronic surveillance of global communications, though usually not civilian communications, within the United States.

But in an era when everyday business is increasingly conducted over computer networks, and when much of that electronic commerce is transmitted in scrambled form to prevent eavesdropping or theft of information, the agency is intent on having Government and civilian computer users employ a standard approach to scrambling.

That way, after obtaining a court's permission, law enforcement officials would have a way of cracking codes.

The National Security Agency will seek bids from companies to produce circuit cards based on its technology, which would be used to scramble electronic messages for Government agencies and, eventually, private companies. Agency employees confirmed the plan late Friday, though no agency officials could be reached over the weekend for further details. I.R.S. Testing Technology

The Internal Revenue Service, the Government agency that has the most electronic communication with the public, has already started testing the system. "We need to know what the administrative issues are with this technology," said Henry Philcox, the tax agency's chief information officer.

Many computer industry executives oppose the National Security Agency's effort, saying there is no way for industry specialists and outsiders to determine the reliability and security of the underlying scrambling technology, which the agency intends to keep secret.

Privacy-rights advocates, meanwhile, are wary of the system because of the electronic "back door" it contains, permitting Government eavesdropping. And some other Administration officials say that the agency is going too far by pushing the standard into civilian computing.

"What these guys are trying to do is run ahead of the blocking," an Administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. "Trying to sell this as the wave of the future is premature as Administration policy."

The circuit card, which is designed to fit into a personal computer and which the agency calls Tessera, is based on technology similar to a device known as the Clipper Chip, a telephone voice-scrambling chip that provides a back-door means for letting law enforcement officials eavesdrop.

The Clipper plan, developed by the National Security Agency in cooperation with the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a Commerce Department agency, was announced in April by the Clinton Administration. It has been almost universally opposed by computer and telecommunications executives and by public policy groups. Letter Protests Secrecy

In a letter to be sent to President Clinton today, which was released on Friday to The New York Times, a group of 38 of the nation's leading computer scientists, computer-security specialists and privacy experts have urged that the Clipper program be stopped.

"The current proposal was developed in secret by Federal agencies primarily concerned about electronic surveillance, not privacy protection," the letter states. "Critical aspects of the plan remain classified and thus beyond public review."

The letter was signed by most of the civilian pioneers of modern cryptography, including Whitfield Diffie of Sun Microsystems, Ralph C. Merkle of the Xerox Corporation, Martin Hellman of Stanford University and Ronald Rivest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While there has been no other indication so far that the Government wants to force private industry to use Clipper or Tessera technologies, their adoption as Government and military standards could go a long way toward making them de facto standards. The Federal and military markets are some of the largest for the computer and communications industries, and the Government has the power to determine what sorts of advanced technology can be exported.

Moreover, the Government could insure widespread use of the Clipper and Tessera technologies by insisting that they be used by businesses and individuals when communicating electronically with Federal agencies. Official Reasoning

Law enforcement officials say the technologies are intended to resolve a longstanding problem of the information age: how to preserve the right of businesses and citizens to use codes to protect all sorts of digital communications without letting criminals and terrorists conspire beyond the law's reach. Businesses and individuals who often communicate over computer networks already make use of a variety of scrambling systems -- either of their own devising or those commercially available.

Many of these scrambling systems are unbreakable by anyone who does not hold the electronic keys to the code, something generally known only by the sender and the recipient of scrambled messages.

That is a problem for the National Security Agency, which routinely listens to many of the world's telephone and computer conversations -- although it has no jurisdiction for monitoring non-Government conversations within the United States. The N.S.A.'s Tessera and Clipper systems would have an independent agency hold master keys to the codes, which could be obtained with a court's permission for surveillance by law enforcement officials. Agency Has Wider Vistas

The agency plans initially to purchase 10,000 to 70,000 of the Tessera cards for its use and that of the Pentagon. In an industry briefing held earlier this month, however, N.S.A. officials proposed the eventual use of the secure communications card in a vast range of civilian and Government applications including some by the Internal Revenue Service, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice and State, and in the Senate and the House.

The agency also suggested that the card could be used for civilian functions like electronic mail and in the scrambling systems employed in cable television.

The National Security Agency's new standard-setting effort is being introduced a couple of weeks before the Clinton Administration completes a classified review of the Clipper proposal, and several industry executives said the announcement had been timed to apply pressure to the Administration's decision making. Government-Industry Argument

The proposal angers industry executives who believe that the agency is rushing to establish a de facto standard that will undercut efforts to adopt a competing commercial standard without a built-in back door. That standard, being developed by RSA Data Security, a Redwood City, Calif., software company, has been endorsed by the nation's leading computer makers, software developers and telecommunications companies.

These companies are particularly troubled by the National Security Agency's refusal to disclose the mathematical formula, or algorithm, on which its scrambling technology is based.

"The issue here is: Should a secret algorithm developed by the intelligence community be used for unclassified civilian uses?" said Stephen Walker, a computer security industry executive and a member of the Government's Computer System Security and Privacy Advisory Board. "I think the answer is it should not."

The agency has increasingly come into conflict with industry and public policy groups who argue that independent and public coding technology is essential if the nation is to develop a viable electronic commerce system.

"These Government surveillance plans focus on limiting public privacy at a time when everyone is calling for more privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, Washington director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a public interest group that organized the letter that will be sent to President Clinton today.

"Privacy is a key part of the national information infrastructure, and the decisions the Administration is making are leaning in the wrong direction." Fragile Job Security.

The new security standard is being proposed at a time the National Security Agency is trying to redefine its role after the cold war, and it raises questions in critics' minds about whether the agency is overstepping its authority. The 1988 Computer Security Act limited the N.S.A.'s computer security role to military and intelligence agencies.

"These guys are fighting for job security," said William Ferguson, vice president of Semaphore Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., computer network security firm. 

"Now that the K.G.B. has gone commercial, the N.S.A. is trying to start its own initiatives that say, 'all we're trying to do is keep up with the K.G.B.' "

White House officials said the agency's actions would not necessarily force the Administration to authorize an unpopular coding technology.

One official said the Administration policy review was likely to establish a permanent working group that would limit the National Security Agency's role in policy making.

The agency originally planned to announce its request for proposals on Friday.

But the notice was delayed because the Government shut down Thursday in response to the frigid weather that disrupted the supply of electricity in Washington and other parts of the East.

The agency tentatively plans to award contracts for the Tessera card by March 25,1994.

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