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Should the NSA be reformed? Fierce debate rages

Ellen Messmer | Nov. 14, 2013
Edward Snowden leaks have fueled calls for change by lawmakers, industry, U.S. allies.

Recent reports assert NSA is somehow intercepting data running on private lines between Google data centers. In an Interview with the Wall Street Journal, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt last week said, "It's really outrageous that the National Security Agency was looking between the Google data centers, if that's true. The steps that the organization was willing to do without good judgment to pursue its mission and potentially violate people's privacy, it's not OK."

But at the same time, the U.S Patriot Act legally compels U.S.-based companies to hand over customer data under certain conditions and refrain from any disclosure of such a request. Power players in the tech industry have gone to Capitol Hill to try and influence any changes lawmakers are willing to make as any legislation related to an NSA makeover is proposed.

Another issue tormenting industry is whether the NSA is deliberately weakening encryption security standards or somehow getting backdoors for cyber-spying into software and hardware. There is strong belief that the Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator (Dual EC DRBG) standard, for example, was deliberately weakened, making its way into software toolkits. Just the suspicions about that have sent at least one major vendor, Cisco, to scramble to identify which of its products have Dual EC DRBG while at the same time emphasizing the controversial encryption can't actually be activated by end users.

Change is in the cards for the NSA, based in Ft. Meade, Md., and with over a $10 billion a year budget. Its beleaguered director, Gen. Keith Alexander, time and again defending the NSA since June at hearings on Capitol Hill, is set to retire from a job early next year. Even the hawkish Sen. John McCain, (R-Arizona) this week called on Alexander to resign or be fired, saying he should be held accountable for the Snowden leaks and that he should apologize to German chancellor Angela Merkel, if not other allies, for monitoring her phone.

Speaking in Germany, McCain did add: "Friends spy on friends. We all know that, but there have to be certain boundaries." He went on to suggest high-tech capabilities that exist now make it hard to define those boundaries, then said, "But when you go to the point where you invade someone's privacy, the leader of certainly Europe, if not one of the most foremost leaders in the world, Angela Merkel, then it was a mistake." Alexander in one brief public comment recently the NSA responds to diplomatic requests on these things, and that the world should look in the direction of the State Department.

The outcry in Europe over the NSA cyber-spying may be impacting U.S. companies. Reports recently indicated that AT&T, which might want to acquire a wireless operator there, could face stiff opposition from European regulators concerned about NSA data collection if the carrier tries to expand into Europe by acquiring a wireless operator.


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