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The NSA blame game: Singling out RSA diverts attention from others

Jaikumar Vijayan | Jan. 10, 2014
The security vendor is almost certainly not only one to have helped NSA.

RSA may well have earned much of the criticism being heaped upon it for allegedly enabling a backdoor in one of its encryption technologies under a contract with the National Security Agency. But singling out the company for reproach deflects attention from the role that other technology vendors may have had in enabling the NSA's data collection activities.

Over the last few days, at least eight well-known speakers have canceled talks or panel presentations at next month's RSA Security Conference to protest the company's relationship with the NSA.

Those who have withdrawn from the event include Mozilla's privacy chief Alex Fowler, Google security researchers Adam Langely and Chris Palmer; special counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Marcia Hofmann; chief research officer at Finnish security firm F-Secure Mikko Hypponen; and Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. More may join them in the coming days.

The protests stem from a Dec. 20 Reuters article, which alleged that RSA had embedded a flawed random number generator, developed by the NSA, into its BSafe encryption software. The article, based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, appeared to confirm earlier suspicions about the security of the technology.

According to Reuters, RSA received $10 million in exchange for making the NSA's Dual Elliptic Curve algorithm the default option for random number generation in the company's encryption toolkit. The report noted the possibility that the government may have misled RSA officials about the true nature of the software.

In the days since the report was published, many within the security industry have slammed RSA, a subsidiary of EMC Corp., for selling out to the spy agency. RSA is a pioneer in encryption and its products are used by millions of companies and consumers to protect sensitive documents. That the company may have weakened its own encryption products to enable NSA snooping has shocked many.

The boycott by the eight speakers is the latest manifestation of that outrage.

Hypponen, one of the first to pull out from the conference, accused RSA of continuing to use the flawed random number generator despite knowing for years that it had a built-in backdoor.

In an open letter to the chief executives of RSA and EMC, Hyponnen said he was canceling his talk because of RSA's tacit admission that it had accepted $10 million from the NSA to embed the flawed random number generator.

"Your company has issued a statement on the topic, but you have not denied this particular claim," he wrote.

Several others who have canceled their appearances at RSA expressed similar sentiments in blog posts and Twitter messages. Jeffrey Carr, founder and CEO of security consultancy Taia Global, called for more transparency from RSA and EMC leadership.


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