The National Security Administration has, for good reason, been front and center in the news for the last couple of months. What the NSA is mostly known for is signals intelligence (intercepting someone else’s communications) and cryptography. It was founded in 1952 out of the ineffectual Armed Forces Security Agency for that specific purpose, in fact. That mission has led it to tapping communications lines, setting up vast antenna arrays, and putting analysts in frigid shacks on the sterns of destroyers pitching in the stormy North Sea, all dedicated at trying to get The Other Guy’s communications. And when it does get them, it tries to crack the encryption used (if any) and succeeds a lot.
In addition to that, the NSA has been tasked to ensure that communications for the United States government are secure. It does this in a number of ways that include preventing leakage of the signals in the first place, but it’s most famous for its work in cryptography. And if there’s one thing that they know, it’s that crypto is hard.
It knows that for one main reason, and that is its code-breaking section. One of that section’s first duties, of course, is to break other nations’ codes. But it also tries to break algorithms in and from the United States. Any time the agency tasks someone to create or improve an encryption algorithm, another group that specializes in finding weaknesses in crypto algorithms is tasked to break it. If that happens, it gets sent back to be fixed if possible or scrapped if not. This is a good thing: if your friend can break your algorithm, there’s a good chance that your enemy can, too.
So take a worldwide coverage and world-renowned crypto capabilities and combine them with the NSA’s mission, which has been eloquently stated, “The ability to understand the secret communications of our foreign adversaries while protecting our own communications–a capability in which the United States leads the world–gives our nation a unique advantage.” In short, break theirs while protecting ours. Part of protecting ours is ensuring that the encryption used, particularly by the federal government, is not breakable while taking every available opportunity to break the encryption used by others.
Take this combination, and two questions naturally rise to the top.
- How much do you trust the NSA?
- How hard is it to avoid them if they’re looking for you?
It turns out that these are not easy questions to answer. While there have been a lot of suspicions about whether the NSA has looked at only foreign traffic over the years, at least without a warrant, it was hard to find proof save for the rare leak. Even the information that has come along in the documents so far released by Edward Snowden hasn’t made the extent of surveillance completely clear, and that makes it even harder to answer the questions. We’ll look at the first of those questions today, and the second question in the next article.
Continue reading “Trust and the NSA: They’re Not Mutually Exclusive”