By Joseph Menn
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – An international group of cryptography experts has forced the U.S. National Security Agency to back down over two data encryption techniques it wanted set as global industry standards, reflecting deep mistrust among close U.S. allies.
In interviews and emails seen by Reuters, academic and industry experts from countries including Germany, Japan and Israel worried that the U.S. electronic spy agency was pushing the new techniques not because they were good encryption tools, but because it knew how to break them.
The NSA has now agreed to drop all but the most powerful versions of the techniques – those least likely to be vulnerable to hacks – to address the concerns.
The dispute, which has played out in a series of closed-door meetings around the world over the past three years and has not been previously reported, turns on whether the International Organization of Standards should approve two NSA data encryption techniques, known as Simon and Speck.
The U.S. delegation to the ISO on encryption issues includes a handful of NSA officials, though it is controlled by an American standards body, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
The presence of the NSA officials and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agency’s penetration of global electronic systems have made a number of delegates suspicious of the U.S. delegation’s motives, according to interviews with a dozen current and former delegates.
A number of them voiced their distrust in emails to one another, seen by Reuters, and in written comments that are part of the process. The suspicions stem largely from internal NSA documents disclosed by Snowden that showed the agency had previously plotted to manipulate standards and promote technology it could penetrate. Budget documents, for example, sought funding to “insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems.”
More than a dozen of the experts involved in the approval process for Simon and Speck feared that if the NSA was able to crack the encryption techniques, it would gain a “back door” into coded transmissions, according to the interviews and emails and other documents seen by Reuters.
“I don’t trust the designers,” Israeli delegate Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at the University of Haifa, told Reuters, citing Snowden’s papers. “There are quite a lot of people in NSA who think their job is to subvert standards. My job is to secure standards.”