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Prominent cryptography and security researchers deplore NSA's surveillance activities

Members of academia urge the U.S. government to reform surveillance practices

By Lucian Constantin, IDG News Service
January 27, 2014 12:50 PM ET

IDG News Service - Some of the most prominent cryptography and security researchers in U.S. academia have condemned the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance practices and called for change.

"Media reports since last June have revealed that the US government conducts domestic and international surveillance on a massive scale, that it engages in deliberate and covert weakening of Internet security standards, and that it pressures US technology companies to deploy backdoors and other data-collection features," the researchers said in an open letter published Friday. "As leading members of the US cryptography and information-security research communities, we deplore these practices and urge that they be changed."

The letter was signed by 53 people, most of them professors at top U.S. universities and research institutions. The list includes some of the biggest names in computer science, technology policy and cryptography like Hal Abelson, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation; Edward Felten, the director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and former chief technologist for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission; MIT professor Ronald Rivest, a pioneer of modern public-key cryptography and of one the creators of the widely used RSA encryption algorithm; and renowned cryptographer Bruce Schneier.

Dutch cryptographer Niels Ferguson is also on the list. Ferguson was one of the two Microsoft employees who in 2007 reported that the Dual_EC_DRBG pseudorandom number generator standardized by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology had a potential backdoor. According to media reports based on documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA pushed this flawed random number generator as a standard as part of its efforts to defeat encryption.

"Inserting backdoors, sabotaging standards, and tapping commercial data-center links provide bad actors, foreign and domestic, opportunities to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities," the letter said. The choice is not between allowing the NSA to spy or not, but between having a communications infrastructure that's vulnerable to attack at its core and one that's by default secure for all users, they said.

"Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals, but we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life," the researchers said in the letter. "We urge the US government to reject society-wide surveillance and the subversion of security technology, to adopt state-of-the-art, privacy-preserving technology, and to ensure that new policies, guided by enunciated principles, support human rights, trustworthy commerce, and technical innovation."

The letter also called for the U.S. government to subject all mass-surveillance activities to public scrutiny, saying that the threat they pose to privacy and democracy is evident, while the value they have in preventing terrorism is unclear. They noted that the five principles described on the reformgovernmentsurveillance.com website that was set up by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo in response to the NSA surveillance revelations provide a good starting point for finding a way forward.

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