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NIST to review standards after cryptographers cry foul over NSA meddling

NIST's cryptographic standards are used by software developers around the world to protect confidential data

By Jeff Larson, ProPublica, Network World
November 05, 2013 04:14 PM ET

Network World - The federal institute that sets national standards for how government, private citizens and business guard the privacy of their files and communications is reviewing all of its previous recommendations.

The move comes after ProPublica, The Guardian and The New York Times disclosed that the National Security Agency had worked to secretly weaken standards to make it easier for the government to eavesdrop.

The review, announced late Friday afternoon by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, will also include an assessment of how the institute creates encryption standards.

The institute sets national standards for everything from laboratory safety to high-precision timekeeping. NIST's cryptographic standards are used by software developers around the world to protect confidential data. They are crucial ingredients for privacy on the Internet, and are designed to keep Internet users safe from being eavesdropped on when they make purchases online, pay bills or visit secure websites.

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But as the investigation by ProPublica, The Guardian and The New York Times in September revealed, the National Security Agency spends $250 million a year on a project called "SIGINT Enabling" to secretly undermine encryption. One of the key goals, documents said, was to use the agency's influence to weaken the encryption standards that NIST and other standards bodies publish.

"Trust is crucial to the adoption of strong cryptographic algorithms," the institute said in a statement on their website. "We will be reviewing our existing body of cryptographic work, looking at both our documented process and the specific procedures used to develop each of these standards and guidelines."

The NSA is no stranger to NIST's standards-development process. Under current law, the institute is required to consult with the NSA when drafting standards. NIST also relies on the NSA for help with public standards because the institute doesn't have as many cryptographers as the agency, which is reported to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the country.

"Unlike NSA, NIST doesn't have a huge cryptography staff," said Thomas Ptacek, the founder of Matasano Security, "NIST is not the direct author of many of most of its important standards."

Matthew Scholl, the deputy chief at the Computer Security Division of the institute, echoed that statement, "As NIST Director Pat Gallagher has said in several public settings, NIST is designed to collaborate and the NSA has some of the world's best minds in cryptography." He continued, "We also have parallel missions to protect federal IT systems, so we will continue to work with the NSA."

Some of these standards are products of public competitions among academic cryptography researchers, while others are the result of NSA recommendations. An important standard, known as SHA2, was designed by the NSA and is still trusted by independent cryptographers and software developers worldwide.

NIST withdrew one cryptographic standard, called Dual EC DRGB, after documents provided to news organizations by the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden raised the possibility that the standard had been covertly weakened by the NSA.

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