NSA director defends development of backdoors by tech companies

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

March 2, 2015

In the wake of objections from privacy advocates and from tech companies about backdoors, NSA director Mike Rogers has weighed in on the necessity of allowing built-in government access to companies’ data, and, thus, gaining access to customers communications. Information about such government requests appeared recently on these pages after President Obama made an impassioned, though confusing plea in favor of companies cooperating with the spy agencies.

Rogers delivered his comments while speaking of cyber security at a conference in Washington, D. C. last week, as he sought to quell the outcry of dissent against the government anti-encryption requests. He maintained that surveillance-friendly backdoors would not infringe upon freedoms nor fatally compromise US corporations or their ability to do business at home and abroad. Instead, he was firm in stating that allowing such access could thwart terrorist and criminal threats.

Rogers supported President Obama’s position of enhancing cyber security through corporate cooperation before an audience of cryptographers, tech company security officers and national security reporters at the New America Foundation. He used the appearance at the venue to fend off criticism that creation of backdoors would result in additional abuses by intelligence agencies,

’Backdoor is not the context I would use, because when I hear the phrase ‘backdoor’ I think ‘Well this is kind of shady, why wouldn’t you want to go in the front door, be very public?

That, however, is precisely the point, and many feel that given the opportunity, the government would very much like to go in the front door – that is through overt acquisition of personal data. Since that is not possible, and since the agencies resort to covert, clandestine practices, the term “backdoor” is apt.

Rogers pointed to the recent Sony hack purportedly by North Korea as an example of the urgency and difficulty of defending against potential cyber threats. Some view the assignment of blame to North Korea to be a convenient move by the government to galvanize support for stricter cyber security measures. He also suggested that the government was playing catch-up, not only in establishing defenses against cyber- attacks, but also in offering its own rules for cyber warfare, including retaliation when and where appropriate,

We’re clearly not where we need to be.

In echoing some of Obama’s waffling on the subject of potential fallout, Rogers opined that companies faced a legitimate business risk by complying with the government, but he suggested that there was a greater threat emanating from cyber-attacks,

I think it’s a very valid concern to say ‘Look, are we are losing market segment (share) here? What’s the economic impact of this?

Rogers then went on to say that he thought a compromise could be reached, but what he failed to address is the irony in companies spending funds at the expense of profits to create defences against their very competitors – notably China. These global rivals will gain market share if US companies must increase prices for their products due to complying with government requests for technological changes to allow access.

US companies have bristled at the government’s pressure to weaken encryption systems in order to allow government access to data streams. They argue that by creating backdoors, the technology would be summarily compromised. Tim Cook, Apples CEO, warned against the “dire consequences” of sacrificing privacy by kow-towing to the government at President Obama’s carefully choreographed Silicon Valley summit last week, much to the chagrin of administration officials.

Cook’s dismay was also echoed at the latest conference by Alex Stamos, chief information security officer at Yahoo, who challenged Roger’s assertions that backdoors would not compromise privacy or competition. Stamos wondered how companies such as Yahoo, with 1.3 billion users worldwide, would be expected to comply with similar requests for backdoor access from foreign governments, while hinting that developing backdoors would be tantamount to putting back the toothpaste once out of the tube. He described it as being akin to “drilling a hole through a windshield.”

Rogers dismissed the worries about other governments making similar requests without adequately addressing the companies’ concerns, and thereby joined President Obama on the issue – that is to say misguided, misinformed, and out of touch with both corporate and private concerns.

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