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Microsoft NSA key Follow-Up 163

Signal 11 writes "Bruce Schneier at Counterpane has some interesting comments about the so-called NSA key embedded into all current versions of windows. " If you missed the fireworks, read the first story or Microsoft response.
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Microsoft NSA key Follow-Up

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  • by nano-second ( 54714 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @05:12AM (#1692726)

    yes, it seems that the NAME of a key is a bit weak evidence to use.

    However, I think people began to have more fun with the "government has evil plans" conspiracy theories and they lost track of the real topic. So far, there seems to be no *real* evidence of anything, either way, at all.

    the real lesson should _not_ be "be afraid of MS and the NSA", it should be "THINK about what you are reading and get more information".
    If you don't, you will be one of the unsuspecting masses who will get blinded by propaganda.

  • I'm sure you're right that the NSA wants that. However, the way they would _GET_ that is either asking Microsoft to give them MS' secret key so they can write their own codes, OR secretly replacing Microsoft's public key with their own on the computers they're using (after all, there is no reason to continue using MS' key).

    So this isn't a good explanation for the existance of the second key.

    I think the true explanation is even simpler: someone who didn't know crypto added it and specified its features, and either nobody who knew crypto paid attention, or their warnings simply weren't heeded until too late.

    I've seen this happen MANY times, and it's astounding how smart, well-worded, and properly delivered arguments can be completely ignored until it's too late.

    I'm sure the third key got in W2K in a very similar way.

  • A buffer overflow.

    A buffer overflow that they know about, is not publicized and is not getting fixed.

    In fact this is absolutely indistinguishable from an honest mistake of a sort that is so common that nobody would think twice. But still it allows any access that they want.

    Now all of that said, there is more. Remember a long time ago that Bruce Perens came out with warning that a proprietary company could submit a patch with a backdoor which they could then exploit later against OSS? Remember how he got flamed over it? People were saying, "What are they going to do? If they put in an if condition, anyone can see it and remove it. They would never do that!"

    Um, not quite. They could do it by putting a buffer overflow in a known place. It looks just like an honest mistake, there are lots more just like it scattered through plenty of OSS projects. If caught it is a minor oops, not even a hint of suspicion.

    The moral is that as long as buffer overflows are accepted and common, backdoors for those we don't want to have them will be easy to come by.

  • Then explain to em exactly why the Crypto API is used...why not just lock the door...???

    Two words: Lock Picks.

    well, not really, but you get the idea, if "they" can get to the computer under that kind of security, then "they" must also want it enough to break through the crypto. Very possible, but incredibly difficult with current crypto schemes and large keysizes.

    It really is just another hoop for any intruders to jump through (and oftentimes much more time consuming than any of the others if they can't find your key or predict it from the random number generator algorithm). That's all. If those measures are being taken already, not too difficult to add one more...


  • by Mawbid ( 3993 )
    What good is a non-networked computer?

    You might as well just put a couple of filing cabinets in that metal room (well, almost).

  • The NSA knows 16 bits of the Netscape export key too - and the same probably goes for a number of other export software packages. No reason to finger Lotus Notes specifically.
  • This particular thing isn't a weak link -- it's an accidentally strong link which allows anybody with any decent hacking skills to upgrade their system to use strong crypto.

    It's pie ALL over MS' face, and Linux has the same strength -- only Linux has it intentionally, not accidentally.

    As to the part about viruses being able to replace your crypt with weak crypto -- okay, it's a danger, but only if you haven't replaced the key yourself already.

    This is a GREAT opportunity for everyone to upgrade their security.

  • The NATO and the German army are using unmodified Windows NT, running Microsoft Office, in the Kosovo and Bosnia. The German army is using Lotus Notes, the export version, to communicate internally. The Swedish govment is using Lotus Notes, the export version, to communicate internally.

    Be afraid. Very afraid.
  • > 2. yes. only the second key appears to be replacable, but since there is NO warning that a test has failed the first, the first question still applies.

    Perhaps only the second is trivially replaceable, (ie, simply hexedit the string to a bunch of zeros)...

    > 4. The key "locations" were never "known" prior to sp5.

    This is not known. I'm sure people poked through MS's DLLs before. And the key did have the characteristic form of a key, as in, that string of bytes did look like a key. What we didn't know until recently was the symbol names that went with the data. (But the actual location and value of the data is *trivial* to rip out of an executable.)

    > 5. In exported versions its 40 bit. Not a terribly difficult crack.

    The strongest encryption you are allowed to install is 40b. But there are fewer restrictions on the use of encryption in such a way that arbitrary data can't be sent. One example of this is digital signing, such as it's used in the CryptoAPI. Especially when the intended use of the digital signing is to keep people from installing strong crypto in violation of those very export laws. 6. Yes you can replace it with a program, but with the first key to authenticate me as i spoof, I can replace it without your knowledge or approval.

    No, there's nothing in here that lets you install anything on someone's computer without their approval. They still need to initiate the install (by running the installer, or a trojan of some sort). What the key does is allow the CryptoAPI to check if the crypto package you install is signed by MS, or the NSA, the only two entities (in this case) who are supposed to sign valid crypto components for Windows.

    You *could*, with a trojan, replace that key, or simply crack the cryptoAPI to not check, and then allow the installation of unsigned crypto modules. But, this would be silly and redundant to use in an attack.

    If you could gain access to someone's computer (via trojan, physical access, etc) then you could simply install a keyboard monitor, or some such, and read all of their data directly, bypassing any crypto. You wouldn't need to hack the crypto module, install broken/weak crypto, then crack it later. And if you did this, the people they tried to communicate wouldn't understand it, because the crypto algorithms wouldn't match.

    No, the only '3v1l h4x0r' trick to do here is simply crack *YOUR* CryptoAPI (and let your friends do the same) so that you can easily encrypt data with a strong algorithm and large key. To do this you'd need to either convince MS or the NSA to sign your strong crypto, or remove the check in the CryptoAPI, much the same as crackers everywhere remove shareware expiration checks, etc.

  • It is possible to break a key (or any data) so that if there was n pieces one could choose that it requires at least n-x pieces to reconstruct the key. So having 10 pieces around the world and having a system that requires 8 of them to recontruct the key whould solve the both problems of loosing it to natural dissaster and compromising of key security. So either microsoft are wery stupid or it really is a NSA-key.

    LINUX stands for: Linux Inux Nux Ux X
  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @05:15AM (#1692741) Homepage Journal
    Microsoft or the MUTT team or Phil Zimmerman, exporting a crypto API is exporting a crypto API and illegal under the current US Crypto laws. Since Microsoft is breaking those very clear laws by shipping NT with a replacable key, every single one of us should demand that the US Commerce department pursue this case with exactly the same level of zeal with which they pursued Phil Zimmerman. Why haven't they already stopped all shipments of NT out of the country? Certainly if Phil was shipping PGP out of Redmond, the men in black would have already stormed his office and confiscated all his computer equipment.

    Or are we proving once more that if you have enough money, you're above the law?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    From the original article..

    "Normally, Windows components are stripped of identifying information. If the computer is calculating "number_of_hours = 24 * number_of_days", the only thing a human can understand is that the computer is multiplying "a = 24 * b". Without the symbols "number_of_hours" and "number_of_days", we may have no idea what 'a' and 'b' stand for, or even that they calculate units of time."


    "Then came WindowsNT4's Service Pack 5. In this service release of software from Microsoft, the company crucially forgot to remove the symbolic
    information identifying the security components."

    this doesn't mean that i acutally believe something like this could simply just "slip through to the public", but don't be so naive people. this is the government of the most powerful nation in the world. to think they don't have some form of control over a product which is a) originated in this country b)used in almost every country in the world and c) has the capability to "interfere with national security" is ludicrous. also, it appears to me that in most of the responses to the article people didn't really read the part i quoted above. if the allegations of microsoft "forgetting" to change their variable identifiers to ambiguous ones is actually true, then i believe this finding deserves some credit. however, i don't want to be naive as well and believe everything that i hear. examine all the facts, and think before you speak.
  • To answer question 1: Just about anyone has access to ALL of the NT Source. You should have seen the server(s) get slammed when this came out: everyone looked for it themselves.
  • #1 is correct, and I'm sure it's the main reason.

    #2 is incorrect -- all symbols were stripped, both _KEY and _NSAKEY. Symbol stripping is standard on executable releases; it reduces bulk and helps keep dirty names out of releases.

    #3 is amusing -- you use the phrase "so many smarter things to do" and "Microsoft" in the same sentence. Face it, Microsoft has always been stupid. And getting bigger doesn't help -- the IQ of a group is equal to the minimum of the IQs of its members, divided by the size of the group (as a Debian user, I'm unhappy about that rule :).

    #4 is just SO wrong it's not funny. Most every OS vendor, and many other software and hardware vendors, have deals to ship this stuff.

  • I agree, the NSA isn't stupid. They know what they're doing. It just goes to show you what the media can do to the general public. They can suddenly publish a story about M$ being allied with the NSA and too many people believe it. I mean, I would never trust Microsoft, but I doubt they would ever do something like that. More likely, it's their *lack* of security that is linked to the NSA. Think about it, if nobody has any security, then the NSA can easily poke around wherever they please. They want to read someone's e-mail? Think Hotmail. Who knows. All I know, you can't fight them directly, so you gotta make yourself some unbreakable code.
  • Honestly, a majority of users seem to be getting worked up because of all the hype. It doesn't help that Linux users (me included) have the ingrained belief that Microsoft sucks, and derive much glee from this NSA business and the Hotmail crack. I'm glad to see that people are calming down from the screams of conspiracy; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (or perhaps I should appeal to Occam's razor)

    Personally, I'm quite the fan of the programmer's-joke theory: I've got one thing named KEY, I'm bored, I don't want to name it KEY2 or something equally boring, so why not slap "NSA" in front? Hmm, maybe I should slip "NSA" into the code I'm (supposed to be) working on right now...
  • I have two conflicting views:
    1. Yes, I have more faith in the NSA's ability to be sneaky - even though I personally know at least one twit they hired fresh out of college, and have less admiration for their HR staff.
    2. I can't bring myself to completely disbelieve the conspiracy based simply on the fact that it would require a colossol screw-up by Microsoft. I mean, gee, they'd never mess something up that badly, would they?

    One way or another, I'd like to see who all's changed status on their payroll over the last week or so...

  • The biggest unansvered question still remains: "Why are there two keys ?". So far Microsoft hasn't uttered a word of explanation that holds water.

    They have admitted that the key is "to ensure compliance with the NSA's technical review". Either NSA wanted a second key or the MS software engineers didn't understand the review.

    Microsoft has so far not offered any explanation of the second keys purpose that the first key doesn't already fulfill. Therefore, either they aren't telling the real truth or they fucked up the implementation.

    Microsofts NULL statement can be found here: ecurity/bulletins/backdoor.asp [].
    Why pay for drugs when you can get Linux for free ?
  • by el bastardo ( 12041 ) <kmz@la[ ] ['vab' in gap]> on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:21AM (#1692751)

    I have to agree with Bruce's (and quite a few /. readers') take on this. If the NSA really did put a back door into Windows, they'd make damn sure no one could find it. Ever. That's why they're called "spooks".

    Besides, with Echelon, they don't even need the back door......

  • NSA stands was ment to stand for "National Security Agency".

    [] door.asp

    "The NSA performs the technical review for all US cryptographic export requests. The keys in question are the ones that allow us to ensure compliance with the NSA's technical review. Therefore, they came to be known within Microsoft as "the NSA keys" "

    But what the real purpose of the second key is, we will propaply never know.
    Why pay for drugs when you can get Linux for free ?
  • I like your theory. Hopefully it will get moderated up a few points (hint!)

    Here is my theory, which goes along with yours:

    There is a small team of M$ programmers who take pride in the code they are crafting, and have worked hard to create a working Crypto API. At some point, the NSA sends around their "pressure tactics" team to influence how crypto modules get signed. These guys are good, without a doubt they have been trained in psychology and have rehearsed and play-acted the scenario many times and are now *VERY* effective at persuasion.

    M$ management crumbles like a bunch of spineless wimps, giving in to every demand of the NSA, and then order the crypto team to implement a second key for the NSA, in effect nominating a second "root" CSP. You need to have a dual root system to do effective Revocation Lists, but it is not necessary.

    So the programmers implement the second key, but chafe at being forced to do a weak crypto implementation. So they make sure the second root key can be replaced without breaking their crypto API, although replacing the M$ root key will cause a failure. They even give the variable the name _NSAKEY so others who maintain the code know what shit is going on.

    Then someone in the software build group who pulls together all the source code from each project and does the compiles, forgets to strip symbols and the _NSAKEY symbol is left in the code.

    Now the world knows it can rip out the second root key, and let windows fail the check with the first root and failover to the second. Now you can set up any strong crypto system yourself, but this is probably most useful for foreign banks and governments who can afford an expert to set up and test the system before rolling it out.

    And the word gets out a little louder than before: U.S. crypto laws are there to make the NSAs job easier, not to protect american citizens or e-commerce or privacy or anything else.

    But the best quote today from anonymous (finkPloyd) coward is:
    Let's face it, if you are depending on Windows for security, you have more problems than the NSA :)

    the AC
  • by Icepick_ ( 25751 ) <icepick&netfamine,,com> on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:23AM (#1692755) Homepage
    Intresting comments from an even more intresting guy.

    I got to meet him a the Neal Steaphenson Cryptonomicon book signing here in Minneapolis a couple of months ago.

    I got him to sign my copy of Applied Cryptography. The signature was


    Now, how cool is that? Definately seems like the kinda guy I'd like to take out for some beers some time.

    Hell, I started spouting off about my plans to wire my vintage telegraph key into my COM port so I could have a 'backup' for my e-mail program. He liked my idea and said to shoot him an e-mail when I get it working, he'd pay me to work up one for him too.

    Just some after lunch ramblings.
  • I was wondering about that too. I've always thought it was easier to compromise a person than crypto anyway, so it would be easier to just shell out moolah to a disgruntled someone instead of all the cloak 'n dagger shenanagins. I like the super secret naming of the key too - "NSAKEY" Gee, who's that for? Not the NSA, they're not that obvious.....

  • Actually, Microsoft did say why they have two keys...for backup/disaster recovery purposes.

    Supposedly, if the primary key were lost or destroyed (say in an earthquake or fire), they could still sign components using the backup key.

    As I mentioned before, I don't buy this explanation totally as there is no reason they didn't have the primary key distributed using an n-threshold key sharing algorithm. The same holds true for the backup key.

    Had they taken this approach, they would have parts of the key in each office. They would need only N parts to reconsitute the key. And, since the parts would be given to supposely responsible individuals, the only way the key could be reconsituted is through a deliberate act or collusion of those holding the parts. My guess there are ways to prevent even the later.

    If their issue was key compromise, then what provisions are in the CryptoAPI to revoke the primary key and activate the backup key? How about being able to replace a superceded/revoked key so that the can not/will be used again? How are they handling certificate revocation lists (CRLs)? Can anyone answer that question? I'd love to know.

    Maybe I sound like a conspiracy nut, but something just isn't right here. Either this is an act of ignornace on Microsoft's part or this is just a lame attempt to put another chink in our freedom's armor. But, I guess we'll never know for sure.
  • You are quite right, but are also reading far more into my post than I put there. As I said, for a two key system to make sense you need a secure way to switch the keys. Take a look at PGP's method for key revocation (note that it is recommended that a revocation message be generated WHEN THE KEY IS GENERATED). Now, the fact that apparently MS has no formal method for switching keys is why I described their implementation as "brain dead."

    As for your first point, I agree. But if you had a secure way to switch between two keys, it would be a smart thing because you could keep signing things even in the event of a compromise and you would not have to get a new copy of the software with a new public key to everybody in order to do so. However, since MS's scheme trusts both keys, I agree with you that two copies of one key would be functionally equivalent.

    I think what stinks is that MS is a closed source company. You can't know for certain what they are doing or why. You are only as secure as MS knows you. You, you have no idea. Yeah, I like that.
  • I would've at least considered tagging this with 'redundant'. The comments do not seem to contain any new evidence that we've not been able to distill from earlier discussion and the Microsoft press release, and the author's opinions aren't accompanied by any proof. I don't know the author's credentials, but you'll find as much speculation in any longer reply to a typical Slashdot article. Maybe as next step we'll get links on the main page to particularly interesting slashdot comments..
  • by um... Lucas ( 13147 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:30AM (#1692764) Journal
    This just shows again how Microsoft is content to dick around with the government and consumer alike.

    Screwing the customer, by creating a secuirty mechanism that can be easily bypassed (if a replaces NSAKEY with a new one, then all your crypto modules can be replaced with insecure versions)...

    On the flip side, they're blatantly disregarding the gov't's export requirements by allowing this key to be replaced abroad. So much for disallowing the export of strong crypto... They can just ship a weakened product and let people oversea's implement the changes.

    No matter how you feel about encryption, privacy, etc... THIS IS A BAD THING. Bad for the consumer, bad for the government, and just bad policy. As we touched on in one of the previous discussions, why in the world did they need to create this "backup" key in the digital age?

    I'd hope to expect that Win2000 ships with just a single key to compare signed code with, or at least bothers to check the signature of the back up key as well... Though I like the idea of myself being able to implement whatever cryptography I'd like, I don't trust anyone enough to go and implement new & imporved modules without my explicit approval
  • Third, why in the world would anyone call a secret NSA key "NSAKEY." Lots of people have access to source code within Microsoft; a conspiracy like this would only be known by a few people. Anyone with a debugger could have found this "NSAKEY." If this is a covert mechanism, it's not very covert.

    I don't think this point is all that strong. Given that MS has made it possible for ANYONE to replace the crypto routines, arguments from "they aren't that stupid" don't hold any water.
    Put Hemos through English 101!
    "An armed society is a polite society" -- Robert Heinlein
  • Does a company have a moral obligation or fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders to circumvent it's "home" country's laws, misguided or otherwise, to maximize profits? How about other countries' laws?

  • I tend to agree with Bruce Schneider...Microsoft is probably not in league with the NSA to reveal all our secrets. But the CryptoAPI is still not trustworthy.

    The strength of encryption is based not on how big the keys are (sorry, but 32kbit keys are just plain unneccesary), but on how hard it is to get the plaintext, based on the crypttext and other known information. If the secrecy of your credit card numbers depends on other people not knowing the algorithm, or the implementation, of your encryption, then your encryption is pretty darn weak. Once the algorithm leaks out (due to espionage or hacking), your secrets are out.

    The best encryption for one to use has five components working for it:
    1. The algorithm is known
    2. The implementation is known (open sourced)
    3. The details of the development are public knowledge (this is why I would trust Twofish over, say, 3DES)
    4. The method has been analysed for possible backdoors and is considered secure
    5. The keyspace is large enough to make brute-force search impractical

    In the case of the CryptoAPI, we don't have an open-source implementation, nor do we know the details of the development of the CryptoAPI. Microsoft has all this information and isn't about to release it to anyone. Because of this, we don't know if the analysis of the CryptoAPI is sufficient. Therefore, we should consider Microsoft's CryptoAPI package untrustworthy.

  • In VMS every system component is a part of some "facility", and each facility has a unique prefix used for avoiding symbol clashes. Some of the security code in VMS is allocated to facilities with the prefixes CIA and KGB. I really doubt that the latter was used to install a back door for someone else's spooks; it was just the developers having a little fun where (they thought) it wouldn't show too much.

    Likely the same thing happened at MS but of course we're all primed to believe the worst of them. Sorta makes you glad your mother lectured you on the importance of maintaining a good reputation, doesn't it? :-}
  • I may be willing to accept your reasons (although jms suggests there is no such mechanism so I'm not real sure). But why didn't MS give this explanation then? At MS' site on the subject it says the key is specifically for disaster recovery. Not anything else. I really still don't understand why DR could cause the neccesity of this.
    Your explanation makes sense though. Theirs does not.
  • See this []article at the Register [] for another reason why this "NSAKey" isn't a Big Brother threat. In short, it says that the NSAKey amounts to a useful hook for people to make their copies of Windows more secure and the NSA's job harder.

    OTOH, the Register article seems to imply that the NSA screwed up in allowing the export of Windows with such a hook, which counters the "NSA is too competent to be this dumb" approach to debunking the idea that this is an NSA backdoor.

    But, whether a mistaken approval or an incompentent backdoor, it doesn't seem to be much of a real threat. All in all, it's only proof of nefarious intentions if you assume nefarious intentions to begin with.

    But if I talk like this much more, the other Libertarians won't let me come to local party meetings anymore...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Isn't it funny that this time it may be an honest misunderstanding on Mickeysoft's part the FUD is gonna work against it major time. Manager Type: NSA key? there's an NSA key? those are the big bad guys right?
  • by brennanw ( 5761 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @05:23AM (#1692772) Homepage Journal
    Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for this simple misunderstanding, but apparently the $NSAKEY was not, I repeat, was NOT, an NSA backdoor. After a thorough investigation and careful examination of all facts, it turns out that $NSAKEY was actually a weather balloon flying over some swamp gasses.

    Previous reports to the contrary are false. Indeed, they never happened. In fact, I don't remember any previous reports to the contrary. In truth, I don't even know why I'm telling you any of this, because we have received no credible reports of an NSA Backdoor in any windows platform.

    Next week we will start investigating reports that farmers are finding strong encryption algorithms burned into their crop fields. Until we discover more about this pheonomena, we are banning all crop exports immediately and reclassifying corn, wheat, and other grains as munitiions.

    Thank you for your support in this matter.


    The Federal Government

  • The secondary key makes a great deal of sense. It's the MS implementation that is brain dead. I can think of two reasons to switch to a backup key. Destruction of the primary (they shouldn't have multiple copies lying around, so posit an explosion/flood/whatever destorying the primary). The second reason would be known compromise of the first key (Ballmer accidentally copied it to his laptop, an MS employee responsible for the key was bribed, whatever).

    The problem with the MS implementation is that EITHER key is trusted! There should be a mechanism to switch keys in a secure manner such that one key becomes untrusted. As it is now, if one key is compromised, it will still be trusted!
  • by ??? ( 35971 )
    Microsoft is right about one of the issues here. A backup key is useful for key loss. If the private primary key were lost in fire, flood, stolen, etc. and there were no backup, CryptoAPI would very quickly cease to be useful, as no newer encryption methods would be able to be implemented under CryptoAPI. This means taht a backup key is useful.

    Microsoft has, apparently done some things wrong here, though. As I understand it, the reason the primary key can't be changed is that the default CSP is signed with the primary key, and changing this key would render the system unusable. Had a necessary component been signed with both the backup key and the primary key, and both signatures tested for that component, it would become more difficult to change the keys and retain a useful system.

    The other thing that Microsoft has messed up here is the issue of key compromise. Microsoft has focussed entirely on prevention on this issue, excluding contingencies where the keys are compromised. They speak of hardware, software and physical security to prevent key compromise, but there does not appear to be a mechanism for key revocation if and when these security mechanisms fail, and the key _is_ compromised.
  • For all the bad press MS is getting, is it possible that they made the second key weak for a reason? Think about it - by making this second key relatively easy to change, that means that non US/Canadian servers running WinNT could implement high security - a feature many outside these countries want. Although MS can't officially sell their software with this encryption, they can "mess up" and allow others to do it for them, thereby sticking it to the government.

    How's that for a conspiracy theory?

  • As I understand ECHELON, it involves the UK, USA, Australia, and New Zealand as major players. Although it is illegal for the NSA to directly spy on US citizens, ECHELON removes this roadblock by allowing the data gathered on US citizens by our allies to be used by the NSA, and vice versa. I have some doubts about this whole NSAKey thing being genuine, but to say that it would be valueless or superfluous to the NSA (if true AND kept secret) is ridiculous. It would be far easier to use one back door in the OS that overwhelmingly dominates the market than it would be to keep trying to exploit security flaws that people keep finding and plugging. As far as cloak and dagger "turning" of a human agent, as has been suggested, well that leaves potential whistleblowers and witnesses. And it's only good for Company A or Organization B. But a master key that lets you peek into anybody's computer at any time? Well, if you were the NSA wouldn't you think that was a pretty handy little tool?
  • This thread is what /. is ALL ABOUT. I see many issues being addressed here and I am sure the value of people just browsing the subject is incalculable. The specifics of this topic are way over my head and I almost feel like I am polluting this discussion with my simple observations. I decided to reply here and perhaps the fans of that old IBM slogan will understand.

    mwood set up the credibility [] argument with his reminder about how Mom talked about reputations. The credential comments seem like a lazy mans way to address this.

    flatrbbt emphasized [] this again but left me some questions to ponder. I hope responses to those questions grows further.

    I could go on-and-on but the point I wanted to make was how markedly different this discussion is. The AC group seems to be on vacation and I want to encourage more factual discussion about this. I am going back into learn mode so keep the good stuff coming.

  • I've worked on a CSP. When you send it to Microsoft you don't have to send the source! You fill out a form describing algorithms used, etc (so they can evaluate the export requirements) but you provide your CSP in binary form (after all, they have to sign the binary). You don't ever have to let them see your source, and they don't check your implementation (for the reasons I stated before).

    So if you want to make a bogus CSP you lie about the contents. Of course your customers can hold you responsible for lying about what you're giving them, but you may or may not care.
  • Take a look at the Bugtraq archives. It ain't so hard to get a Windows machine to run exploit code. ASP holes, HTA holes, Java holes.
  • This NSAKEY dosn't give the NSA any advantage
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • I agree it is just that simple, except...

    Except it *does* allow the NSA to change your crypto. Whether they would want to or whether they have a better way in through another security hole is debatable. The real point is that it is unnecessary for you and I to have a NSA key in our copy of Windows.
  • Yes, I'd say they are definitely more advanced than the average /.'er. To think otherwise would be pretty naive.

    BTW, your comment about "they don't develop their own technology" is a bit off.

    Yes, they use Crays -- but they also have super computers that they develop in house (in whole or in part). One notable one they call "The Thinking Machine" was specifically designed and developed for crypto operations.
  • The way their OS handles the keys makes it pointless to have the secondary key. In order for a module to run, it needs to have a valid signature for either key. You can't replace MSFT's root key and still have Windows function, but you can replace the 2nd key (NSAKEY) and have it function fine.

    Yes, customers can replace the key aboad in order to implement whatever crypto they want. But a virus could subistitute the second key with one of it's own and then change the default crypto from _____ bit (128 bit?) to 1 bit if it felt like it. Your data would still appear to you as being scrambled, windows would accept this new encryption scheme and everyone involved would think it's all hunky dorey.

    Yes bruce is an expert on the topic... We're no longer talking about NSA conspiracies here, and just thinking of Windows security issues. That key will not permit them to run word processing programs without your knowledge. It just is a public key for windows to check the validity of crypto modules. He himself said that in all likelyhood the NSAKEY isn't there for the NSA. So then, why do you want to remove that key, anyways?

  • Since Microsoft relies exclusively on prevntative security measures to protect the private key(s) from being compromised, any measure which would reduce this security is unacceptable. More copies of the key makes it more difficult to maintain security and ensure that the private key is not compromised (as opposed to lost).
  • Really people, as big as Microsoft likes to think they are, the NSA is bigger. The NSA wouldn't need anything sneaky. They could just seize the private keys from Microsoft. It would be easier and cheaper than having to make any silly deals with Microsoft. I don't see the NSA making deals with any other encryption based products. I don't think there are any back doors in PGP or GPG that allow them to break any cipher. The NSA will simply pick you up, take you to their place, and force the private key out of you. It is probably more fun that way anyway. I believe Bruce is right. The man knows what he is talking about.
    Words of Wisdom:
  • by flatrbbt ( 25980 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @05:43AM (#1692790)
    Unfortunately, MS suffers from the same credibility gap as certain others do. The surest way to know they are lying is to check and see if their lips are moving.
    Even after their answers, The questions remain.

    Why are there 2 keys?
    Why are the keys replacable?
    Who has had access to them? aside from a hoarde of programmers doing daily builds.
    Doesnt the daily build mean the two keys are stored in the same building?
    Is only 1/2 oh this building "natural disaster proof"?
    What happens now that the key locations are known?
    How long before they are cracked?
    Once they are cracked, cant I use ms_key to replace nsa_key?
    Have your keys been replaced?
    Will they be replaced again.
    Can they be replaced via activeX/java?

    All in all, I find the story without credibility.
    The tone in his second writing does not support the tone of his first.
    What changed his mind? Why is this such an insignificant security hole in comparison to the major hole at the time of the first writing?
    Who convinced him otherwise?

    I am sorry, but having listened carefully to this and other arguments presented by MS and its minions, I will need some convincing.

    Until then, I will continue to recommend that all MS products be removed from "secure" corporate machines.

    Steve Ruyle
  • by DiningPhilosopher ( 17036 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @05:45AM (#1692791)
    There's at least one thing Microsoft and Schneier are not kidding about - the MS CAPI verification keys DO NOT PROVIDE SECURITY, nor do they intend to. They enforce export restrictions.

    If you send Microsoft a CSP which encrypts data by XOR'ing with a stream of zeroes they'll sign it as long as you have the appropriate license. They don't care, nor should they.

    Think about it. If Microsoft were actually certifying that any signed CSP provided a good strong crypto implementation, then any customer who discovered a flaw in a signed CSP could sue. And would. Microsoft wouldn't even consider putting themselves in that position.

    Therefore if I work for the NSA and I want to install a crippled CSP on your system, I ask Microsoft to sign it. And they will, no security questions asked. The only thing having my own key would buy me is not having to wait for them to get through the process.
  • If the NSAKEY is there to support NSA, or put there at their own request, it's highly amusing.

    The one documented effect of the second NSAKEY is to defeat strong encryption control on Windows.

    No matter which side of strong encryption debate you're on, Microsoft has probably lost reputation over this. Don't be surprised if an order for RedHat CDs arrives from Maryland... :)
  • I don't have my copy of the first edition of Applied Cryptography with me, but as I recall Schneier is basically an amateur cryptographer. When he started writing Applied Cryptography he knew very little about it -- and while he learned a tremendous amount as he wrote it -- he has no formal training in the field. Formal training isn't everything [read the very entertaining 'Between Silk and Cyanide' for another amateur's good work,] I wouldn't view Schneier's credentials as impeccable.

    If I recall correctly, there are several warnings in AC (at least the first edition) warning against using the work of amateurs.

    That said, Blowfish and Twofish do seem to have passed muster with world-class cryptographers, which is a tremendous achievement; and I have tremendous respect for Schneier.


  • But why didn't MS give this explanation then? At MS' site on the subject it says the key is specifically for disaster recovery. Not anything else. I really still don't understand why DR could cause the neccesity of this. Your explanation makes sense though. Theirs does not.

    I was wondering about that, too. Why would they give an explanation that clearly makes no sense? I think it's a PR concern. Talking about natural disasters is OK -- publically raising the issue of a compromised key is not.

  • by The Welcome Rain ( 31576 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @06:15AM (#1692797)

    The true importance of this news item never had anything to do with practical matters of security. If you're concerned with and knowledgeable about computer security, you're probably not using Windows -- especially if you're trying to keep the NSA out.

    The real issue is the effect this story will have on Microsoft's international image. They are already considered to be very Americocentric (as are many other American companies, to be fair). Remember Microsoft's refusal to produce an Icelandic version of Windows []? They ticked off lots of non-Americans with that move, not all of them in Iceland.

    The idea that Microsoft would truckle to the whims of an American intelligence agency only worsens the problem. It didn't turn out to be true, but people aren't going to remember that. They'll remember the accusation far longer than they'll recall the exoneration.

    It sucks, but the truth just isn't an important factor in shaping public opinion. Microsoft lost big on this one.


  • by Anonymous Coward
    Let's face it, if you are depending on Windows for security, you have more problems than the NSA :)

  • I think really sensitive information might be stored on a windows machine if that was what they wanted for the job at hand.

    The security is more likely to be enforced through no network connection, being in a metal room so that no electormagnetic signals can escape, and simply never allowing any recording media of any sort to leave the room once it has entered. Beepers, cell phones, and other electronic devices will also never enter and especially never leave that room. Really secrete places probably have filters on the power or their own power supply so nohting can escape over that channel either. No modem will be left in a computer connected to a live line (there is probably not a live telephone line in the room) so no trojan process can dial out in the middle of the night and up load stuff.

    The secrete data can then be manipulated with whatever software you want. Given such a situation, how would you steal data ? You might slip them a messed up copy of something so they'd loose their data or otherwise sabatoge the effort, but there is no channel for you to receive information on the outside.
  • Hey all,

    OK, people have been saying 'It *must* be the NSA' for this Microsoft 'key'.

    Now, there are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there that would say this is the NSA. There are even more that believe in the coverup of Roswell et al. Some even believe the X-Files is real...

    Here's a thought - IF the Government is so powerfull and has been so good at keeping secrets, how come they are pretty inefficient in comparasin. Surely if the Government was able to keep all of these things secret and so effeciently then why do we still have crime on the streets ? Why are there still the unemployed... makes you think...

    As I think a couple of other people have said, is it not plausable that a MS programmer thought of a name for a key and then thought of the NSA... bet he's laughing if he did... otherwise we better start to worry ;-)
  • Everybody starts out as an amateur. Bruce Schneier isn't an amateur any more.

  • >>"NSAKEY" Gee, who's that for? Not the NSA, they're not that obvious.....

    Of course, if everyone didn't take it seriously because they believed that it was "too obvious" and that it "couldn't be true," then it could be even more powerful than if it were kept secret.

    Just a conspiracy nut theory... Personally after reading through all the commentary and articles it just seems to be a bit of sensationalism. The buffer overflow security flaws in IIS is a much larger security risk than this issue....

  • by Anonymous Coward
    JYA.COM posted a link to a different MS response. It said something different -- perhaps this was the marketing dept reply? ;)

    I read the last few paragraphs as "The NSA required it, we put it in, don't worry -- it won't hurt you".

    see: om/presspass/press/1999/sept99/rsapr.htm []

    Microsoft Says Speculation About Security and NSA Is "Inaccurate
    and Unfounded"

    REDMOND, Wash. - Sept. 3, 1999 - Microsoft Corp. said today that
    speculation about Microsoft® Windows® security and the U.S. National
    Security Agency (NSA) is "inaccurate and unfounded."

    In response to speculation by a Canadian cryptography company that
    Microsoft had somehow allowed the NSA to hold a "backdoor" key to the
    encryption framework in its Windows operating system, Microsoft issued
    the following statement:

    "This report is inaccurate and unfounded. The key in question is a
    Microsoft key. It is maintained and safeguarded by Microsoft, and we
    have not shared this key with the NSA or any other party.

    "Microsoft takes security very seriously. This speculation is ironic since
    Microsoft has consistently opposed the various key escrow proposals
    suggested by the government because we don't believe they are good
    for consumers, the industry or national security.

    "Contrary to this report, the key in question would not allow security
    services to be started or stopped without the user's knowledge."

    Microsoft said the key is labeled "NSA key" because NSA is the technical
    review authority for U.S. export controls, and the key ensures
    compliance with U.S. export laws. The company reiterated that
    Microsoft has not shared this key with the NSA or any other company or

    Founded in 1975, Microsoft (Nasdaq "MSFT") is the worldwide leader in
    software for personal computers. The company offers a wide range of
    products and services for business and personal use, each designed with
    the mission of making it easier and more enjoyable for people to take
    advantage of the full power of personal computing every day.

    Microsoft and Windows are either registered trademarks or trademarks of
    Microsoft Corp. in the United States and/or other countries.

    Other product and company names herein may be trademarks of their
    respective owners.

    Note to editors: If you are interested in viewing additional information
    on Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft Web page at on Microsoft's corporate
    information pages.
  • Then explain to em exactly why the Crypto API is used...why not just lock the door...???

    -Shane Stephens
  • There is a mechanism for key revocation... they can just upgrade the OS. Over time the old key would be increasingly difficult to use despite having been compromised.

    Since the keys are cryptographically secure, the most likely scenario is not that the key would be compromised by a hard-crack, but by someone within Microsoft who works with the private key (signing packages) and who decides to give it to someone who asks nicely.

    Microsoft would (I imagine) immediately post a service patch which (among other things) removes the old key, and replaces all of the old crypto modules with new ones. The new modules would then work everywhere (even on unpatched machines), but the old modules would only work on old machines, which would gradually become obsolete. Since there isn't any way to force people to accept a certificate revocation, this seems as reasonable a way as any to manage such a problem (at least to me.)

  • Hmmm

    Sorry, but this is just poor logic:

    (1) Primary key destroyed by natural disaster-
    Why would you store a backup secondary key when you can store a backup COPY of the primary key? Having two keys is more of a security risk - there's TWO access points to hack, instead of just one!

    (2) Secondary key used to replace primary key in case of security hack-
    How exactly did you want microsoft to switch keys? A THIRD key???? Also, if keys were switched, then no programs implementing the old system would work on new versions of the OS, and no programs implementing the new system would work on old versions of the OS. Finally, assuming there was a security hack, anybody could just obtain an older copy of the OS (and there's plenty around...) to perform their nefarious deeds on.

    I'm sorry - it may not be (probably isn't) actually anything to do with the NSA, but SOMETHING stinks to high heaven here.

    -Shane Stephens
  • Eeerm - no, I don't think so...

    There's still one major flaw in that argument.

    Third party crypto modules (signed ones) would immediately stop working. Oops!

    -Shane Stephens
  • I think you've just over-reacted because somebody's attacked your favorite company.

    The guy you just rabidly attacked was clearly pointing out the injustness of the law - ever heard of sarcasm? Incedentally, he was also pointing out another interesting fact - that money does buy you out of illegal situations in a "democracy".

    In a sense, microsoft HAS broken the law. Sure, they probably did it through complete and utter incompetent stupidity (and who would expect anything less), but remember that ignorance of a law is NOT an excuse for breaking it!

    The point is, there is now a widely available operating system which can potentially have extremely strong (128 bit, 256 bit, you name it!) encryption installed on it, and that this OS originated in America.

    I'd say that was clearly in contravention of the anti-export of encryption laws. After all, if it wasn't, then why the hell did Microsoft go to all the trouble of providing a signing mechanism in the first place????

    Get over your "Oh! Somebody's bashing Microsoft!" reflex action and actually READ the posts, numbnut!!!

    -Shane Stephens (yes, I'm not afraid to use MY real name...)
  • Even better, NSAKEY happens to be an anagram for SNEAKY.

  • It was a joke. Please don't take offense.
  • Many of you apparently view this comment from Schneier as some sort of vindication of Microsoft. I see it in quite another light. Before I criticize the man, let me clarify that I have read his book and that I do greatly admire him.

    Those who have observed that Schneier's press release adds little to the discussion are correct - nearly. True, he says nothing that has not already been said several times elsewhere, including a regurgitation of the Microsoft party line and some humorous commentary on the inappropriate name this key received in the debugger.

    But he does add something. He adds a snide and technically unjustifiable comment about Microsoft cryptography, implying that it is deficient:

    Microsoft has two keys, a primary and a spare. The Crypto-Gram article talked about attacks based on the fact that a crypto suite is considered signed if it is signed by EITHER key, and that there is no mechanism for transitioning from the primary key to the backup. It's stupid cryptography, but the sort of thing you'd expect out of Microsoft.

    This is not the "sort of thing" I'd expect out of Schneier. He behaves as though he has never heard of a Certificate Revocation List. CRL's are fully implemented in Internet Exploder (although for sound connectivity reasons online checking is turned off by default. see Tools|Internet Options|Advanced) CRLs are not only an adequate means of revoking compromised public keys, they are an internet standard.

    Schneier's article appears to contribute nothing to this discussion other than an unjustified punch below the belt. I admire the author of Applied Cryptography too much to let this attack pass without voicing my disapproval. Schneier has already made his name. He has nothing to gain from pinching the schoolyard bully and then running away.

  • It was another site, I think it was the CCC, but I'm not sure. we were also reading what was probably a bad translation from german as well.

    in any event, I agreed with this guy, and was *amazed* at all the people who didn't even really take into consideration what was happening. I mean, they just jumped right on the band wagon. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the posters didn't even bother to read the story...
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • Given two opposing stories, the truth often lies somewhere in the middle. MS on one side says it's a backup Key, and this article suggests it a key for NSA to do the signing themselves. Lets throw together some wild thoughts and see where it goes...

    a) Several people have commented that it is possible for the key to be replaced and load other "signed" crypto modules.
    b)MS cut a deal to enforce signing crypto modules, to enable them to export windows. If NSA wanted to load modules without MS, they'd need a key.
    c) People were initially scared that this key would allow NSA to install modules on their machine.
    d) The keys are actually used to verify crypo before loading, if it passes the signature, it'a trusted and will be used.

    Would the NSA not be equally scared of someone signing a crypto module and getting it loaded and trusted on their machine? Now think, windows is exported worldwide, and if this article is correct, then so is the NSA public key. How likely is that? (Hint: which is easier to detect, a online hacker trying to logon directly, or a remote hacker cracking your /etc/passwd?)

    So, what if this key was just inserted as a "placeholder" and within NSA, there is a "hardening" program which replaces the placeholder with their own. This could explain
    a) That MS would indeed have access to the second key (ie the "backup")
    b) That NSA do load crypto signed by themselves
    c) Why it was called an obvious name, as it was meant to be replaced later.

    Fun to think about, eh?

  • We're talking about the single largest employer of mathematicians in the world. Although I'd imagine the gap has dwindled as more people get into the field (when I was at Brown, at least two professors in the math department were actively doing crypto-related research), it seems likely to me that the NSA is still at least three years ahead of the civilian research world.

    Only a guess, though. The NSA knows, but they aren't telling.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is all speculation, but it seems to me that the smart way for a company to do something like this is to use a smart card. That way nobody knows the private key -- it's stored in the tamper-proof card. You don't have to worry about an employee (or NSA spook) stealing a look at the key someday. It can't be copied.

    If done with a smart card, you have to physically possess the smart card to sign anything (it has an onboard processor you feed data blocks to). My guess is that Microsoft keeps the main smart card locked up on their campus and the backup smart card locked away in a bank vault somewhere.

  • The NSA did not do this: Microsoft did this. It did it to cause fear, uncertainty and doubt about the U.S. Government in foreign markets. Microsoft wishes the world to put pressure on the USA to back off on Microsoft. On the one hand there's the antitrust case (GEE, DO YOU SUPPOSE DISTRUST OF GOVERNMENT WOULD PLAY IN THEIR FAVOR?), and on the other hand there is encryption restrictions, and in order to be in a position to effectively fight Unices and Linux internationally, Microsoft has to be allowed to ship encryption anywhere they like, including to enemies of the USA. After all, those enemies can use Linux: stopping Microsoft from doing business with enemies of the USA means getting in their way and impeding their business.
    This is a trial balloon for a new geopolitics: it says in BIG RED LETTERS, "hands off Microsoft, USA". It's not a message for America- it is a message for the rest of the world. "Look! Unless something is done, the worldwide monopoly on computers and communications will be a tool of the USA! Wouldn't you rather it was just a worldwide monopoly beholden to nobody, with no loyalties at all?"
    I must say I've been expecting this: I've been certain for some time that MS had no loyalty to the USA at all, and that they would find a way to cut the apron strings. It's typically ruthless MS marketing that the way turns out to be casting fear, uncertainty and doubt at the NSA by a childishly transparent ploy. Nothing that I've ever heard about the NSA suggests that they would tell MS to build in a key for them, allow it to be named 'NSAKEY', not _check_ to see if MS did it right etc etc etc. That's ludicrous- competent or incompetent they are too _paranoid_ to allow themselves to be betrayed that stupid way, therefore it's not them (and they probably have YA-key that nobody knows about, knowing them).
    Since it's not the NSA which laid that carefully planted clue, and since it came from somewhere inside Microsoft, the question becomes "Why would Microsoft produce such a clue to cause fear of the NSA?" and I think what with the antitrust case and the blocks against exporting encryption, it should be quite obvious why Microsoft now sees fit to backstab the U.S. Government itself.
  • True, NSA could be called expert in this area. But don't lose sight of the fact that they oppose general use of strong crypto both domestically and abroad. You shoudn't assume their interest is in improving MS's crypto security just because they know a lot about the subject.

    There does not seem to be any irrefutable evidence that NSA's intention was to weaken crypto or backdoor Windows in this case, I agree.
  • 1st) I didn't mean to say the average /.'er but was too lazy to type out a full word. In a rephrase, are they that much more advanced than freelance computer scientists? I think not.

    2nd) I was under the impression that they simply "overtook" the thinking machine from a seperate corp. claiming it was illegal...not sure where I read that, but oh well, wouldn't be the first time something I've read was inaccurate.

  • One thing to bear in mind is that the CryptoAPI does not encrypt. Rather, it's a "method-independent" API for calling encryption modules. Microsoft uses the CryptoAPI so that they can ship weak encryption modules for export, and strong ones for U.S. use, without any programs having to be recompiled to, e.g., compensate for the fact that 3DES uses 168-bit keys rather than 56-bit keys like the export DES (assuming MS got permission to raise it from 40 bits).

    It is possible for a "middleware" product like the CryptoAPI to be insecure, but not likely. I still wouldn't trust Microsoft's own encryption modules though (the ones actually CALLED by CryptoAPI). For one thing, a good PRNG to get randomly-distributed keys is VERY hard to write. I just finished writing one because every distributed PRNG that I came across produced predictable keys (meaning that you don't have to brute force all possible keys to break the encryption, just the keys produced by the pseudo-random number generator, which proved not to be so random!). I seriously doubt that Microsoft got the PRNG right, and Bruce Schneier's own "Yarrow" PRNG is perfect proof of that (Bruce has a paper on his site, [], detailing attacks on a PRNG that will let you crack encryption in MUCH less time than a pure brute-force attack).


  • I'm sure you're right that the NSA wants that. However, the way they would _GET_ that is either asking Microsoft to give them MS' secret key so they can write their own codes, OR secretly replacing Microsoft's public key with their own on the computers they're using (after all, there is no reason to continue using MS' key).

    Don't forget Without MS's Key, windows can't varify *itself* and the OS won't work at all (at least that's what they've been saying). I'm sure the NSA *could* do somthing to rev-eng windows, and rewrite all that stuff, but it would be a lot less work for them to just work with MS to begin with
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • It *doesn't* not really. while it's possible for them to *release* crypto modules if they really want, they can't just type in your IP address and change your crypto around. The keys are only used to load code Already on the system. If they really needed to install something I'm sure they would want to do more then that (think back orifice).

    also, since it would require you to run executing code, even if the 'NSAKEY' weren't there, they could conceivably add it to the system
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • The NSA can't install it remotely, whatsoever. Even Active X applets from Microsoft need to be authorized before they can be used.

    They keys are only used to verify Stuff already on the system
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • by Pac ( 9516 )
    How so? Everything Schneier said about the NSAKey problem up to now is almost exactly what is now published in his site. And he is probably one of the most capable persons to comment on it. I will go with his opinion on any crypto matter over the opinions of every journalist that has written about it, any day.

    So, please give references to what you are saying.
  • by schporto ( 20516 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:32AM (#1692833) Homepage
    Can someone explain the MS response? Why do they need the backup? If you have a natural disaster where the primary key is held then the backup key would be used which is held at a different place. Why not just have 2 copies of the primary key? I hope there is something obvious that I don't see.
  • well i think that maybe the nsa didnt put this key
    now if it has other maybe , i think that hte keys are there for what ms wants and not what they say
    peronaly i dont like the idea of letting ms have any key control in an os. the "back up key" idea was altough thought full it can be used as an exploid , and i dont trust ms enuf to tell me the truth. sorry it is just me being paranoid
  • by SteveX ( 5640 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:37AM (#1692835) Homepage
    This whole issue has been fun to watch. When I read the first message about how Microsoft had the NSA key in Windows, I kinda wondered if they would really do that.. Couldn't really decide either way.

    But the number of people that read it and instantly assumed it was true was astounding. I've had friends ask me out of the blue about it. I've heard of it through mainstream media. I've seen story after story about it.

    Most of the the media people still won't admit it was jumping to conclusions. That's what really bothers me. They're mostly sticking to the "well Microsoft says it's false but who can know for sure" lines to cover their own asses (and credibility).

    A Wired story [] says "Questions lingered Friday over whether or not security experts overreacted to a scientist's charge that Microsoft built a backdoor in Windows for a US spy agency to enter". Isn't it fairly clear that they overreacted? Or is this going to happen again the next time?

    (If it's a real issue, like the Hotmail thing, then they deserve to get slammed... but come on, let's verify this stuff before we go nuts).
  • Ummm...Bruce Schneier is the author of "Applied Cryptography". If anyone has impecable crypto credentials, it's him.
  • I agree with the other poster.
    Hmmmm....with Echelon, the NSA would really have no need for a backdoor to Windblows; but then gain; how hard is it to crack Windblows?
    The NSA has some of the best crypto/math folks; so you really need to ask yourself if they would leave something so obvious. They are a little more adept than that.
  • by Pac ( 9516 ) <> on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:40AM (#1692838)
    Bruce Schneier:

    - Wrote "Applied Cryptography", the best introductory book to the field of cryptography and cryptanalysis;
    - Wrote the Blowfish algorithm;
    - Wrote with others the Twofish algorithm, one of the finalists of NIST's new Advanced Encryption Standard

    There is a lot more. Look around the site...
  • by CocaCola ( 30016 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:44AM (#1692840)
    1) 'Lots of people have access to source code within Microsoft;' - maybe, but most people have only access to code they develop, in fact only a handful of people have 'full' access. Even fewer people have access to the keys themselves. The Caldera antitrust suit brought up some very interesting Microsoft-internal documents that have relevance now: a dozen DOS engineers were reassigned to work on making DrDOS 'as incompatible as humanly possible'. 'Normal' DOS engineers did not even know about this team, the team's real duty was only known to the vice president (Brad Chase in this case). And DOS only had a couple of tenthousand lines of code - with NT's millions lines of code it's not at all hard to 'hide' activity and shield off even top developers from 'the realities of RL'.
    2) 'It's called "NSAKEY" for some dumb reason' - yeah, and the symbol name got stipped off from _all previous shipped Windows releases_ (a couple dozen ones, not including localized versions), while $KEY was not stipped? You got to be kidding. $NSAKEY within a crypto module means only one thing.
    3) 'There are just too many smarter things they can do to the unsuspecting masses.' - face it, the Microsoft monopoly is valuable to the signal interception community in this regard: it's everywhere. You will not find a single piece of software more widely installed.
    4) What was the deal Microsoft cut with the NSA which (uniquely amongst OS vendors) enables them to ship a Crypto API. Crypto-enabling APIs are explicitly forbidden by US export controls, even if they do not ship strong crypto. What was the 'deal' with the NSA?
  • It's not just for natural disaster. If they need to revoke the original key for any reason (like say it got cracked), then the backup key could be used to verify the replacement key for the original.


  • Right!!!!! The NSA would never decrypt data from inside the US. Just like Drug Task Forces never do anything illegal in the (justified) pursuit of illicite drug manufacturers. What Planet are you from?
    You assume from naivite that I don't understand the NSA or Echelon. One comment doesn't mean I'm stupid.
    Nonetheless, you're naive if you think that the Feds stop gathering data (in any fashion they want because there's a law.) They just can't use that stuff in court; but they do use it to focus the investigation.
    I'll bet all those guys just shiver in their boots at the thought of using their collection methods in the US......Yeah right/.
  • I'm Mark Rubin. Nice to meet you Mr. Coward. Humor people. Humor.


  • 2) 'It's called "NSAKEY" for some dumb reason' - yeah, and the symbol name got stipped off from _all previous shipped Windows releases_ (a couple dozen ones, not including localized versions), while $KEY was not stipped? You got to be kidding. $NSAKEY within a crypto module means only one thing.

    Only one thing? Those of us who don't jump immediately into paranoia mode can picture M$ engineers, having to name the thing, laughing their asses off when they realize what will happen when conspiracy junkies see the name and using it as a gag.

    There are other, even goofier possibilities, not to mention the quite reasonable ones brought up on NTBugTraq.
  • It's gotta go in the code somewhere, man.
  • by Eric Green ( 627 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @10:45AM (#1692849) Homepage
    Bruce has extensively cryptanalyzed Microsoft's security and encryption software, and torn it to shreds in so many ways that it is pathetic. Read some of the papers on his site.

    The purpose of the CryptoAPI was to enforce U.S. export controls. The failover to the second key, which can be poked with your own public key (as described in his earlier Crypto-Gram article), means that this mechanism is broke broke BROKE. Like so much else in MS's crypto suite. Sigh.

    Read his Yarrow paper and you'll get the context for his comment that it's easier to attack MS's PRNG (pseudo-random number generator) than it is to attack their encryption directly.


  • by Critter ( 9014 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @08:19AM (#1692854)
    A fellow graduate student from England told me a story a few years ago about American Intelligence and the atom bomb. The Manhatten Project was our top top secret; we wouldn't even tell our allies about it. However, when the device was detonated, possibly over Hiroshima, the U.S. government gladly distributed time elapse photographs of the expanding mushroom cloud: What a historic moment! What an achievement! From this little bit of information British scientists, and possibly others, were able to deduce the critical mass of U238.

    People are careless, dumb and vain: one of the reasons security through obscurity is a bad idea.
  • I don't believe that the "NSAKEY" allows the NSA to read everyone's email that's encrypted with Windows - that was always an exaggeration. But it's clear that Microsoft are holding something back, because they have not produced a credible account of why the second key is there.

    All they say is "in case the first key is destroyed". To which we all say "so why not take a backup"? And after that, it's all *sheer speculation* on our parts about what their actual reasons are, for example about whether they mean "compromise" rather than "destruction" (hint: volcanoes don't compromise keys) or whether there's some other need that backups wouldn't meet. It's speculation because Microsoft haven't told us. All I know is:

    * Microsoft have not come up with a believable explanation of why there are two keys, either of which can validate a CSP

    * And *neither has anyone else*, not Bruce Schneier, not Markus Kuhn, not any of the people on the mailing lists I'm on. No-one has suggested anything that would make this an even vaguely sensible way to do things, let alone a way past an NSA security review.

    Frankly, if I hear a non-fishy explanation for this I'll be quite likely to believe it - it's true about Microsoft's historical stance in favour of strong crypto, even though the whole CryptoAPI signing thing rather goes against that in the first place. Until such an explanation surfaces, though, there's no reason at all to let Microsoft off the hook on this one.
  • There has to be a hierarchy of trust for these to be proper CRLs: ie, less priviledged keys have trust delegated to them by more priviledged keys, so the more priviledged keys can later revoke that trust by signing an appropriate CRL. Both keys are as trusted as each other and can replace themselves or each other.

    Schneier's analysis is quite accurate.
  • by mrneutron ( 61365 ) on Thursday September 09, 1999 @04:48AM (#1692863)
    From BugTraq. It's not on their archive (yet) at, but will be soon:

    From: Markus Kuhn
    Subject: Re: NSA key in MSFT Crypto API

    The actual funny story behind the presence of the NSA key has been
    seriously misunderstood here. CSP verification keys have only one *real*
    purpose: They are intended to enforce the US export restriction
    requirement that Microsoft is not allowed to ship software abroad that
    can easily be extended with strong cryptography. They are certainly not
    intended as any useful form of integrity protection for your system.

    The NSA got their own CSP verification key, because they want to be able
    to change their own secret US government CSPs required for the handling
    of classified documents, without having to go to Microsoft each time to
    get a signature for an NSA CSP update. Fair enough. So Microsoft built
    in a second verification key such that the NSA can produce and install
    on DoD PCs their own CSPs without requiring any Microsoft involvement.

    The real funny part is that Microsoft did not protect the NSA key
    particularly well, such that everyone can easily replace the NSA key
    particularly well, such that everyone can easily replace the NSA key
    easily with his own key. This was reported by Nicko van Someren at the
    Crypto'98 rump session. This means that everyone can now easily install
    his own CSPs with arbitrarily strong cryptography. This means that the
    NSA's demand to get quickly a second key added led in effect to the easy
    international availability of strong encryption CSPs. My guess is that
    this is Microsoft's sweet revenge against the NSA for creating all these
    Export hassles (e.g., the requirement that CSPs be signed) in the first
    place. It backfired nicely against the NSA. :)

    All this has nothing to do with an NSA backdoor, because the CSP keys
    are an export enforcement tool and not an integrity protection tool.
    They do not protect all parts of the system that could be compromised by
    someone who wants to install some eavesdropping malware. The CSP
    verification keys only authenticate that no cryptography that violates
    export laws has been installed. If you are worried about the NSA
    installing malicious software on your PC, you should not rely on the CSP
    verification keys (which were never designed for that purpose anyway),
    but on virus scanners with tripwire functionality that report any
    modifications to your DLLs. There is no digital signature functionality
    required to implement these, simple secure hash algorithms will
    perfectly do.

    Please apply a bit of simple critical thinking here:

    If the NSA wanted to have real backdoor functionality, they would much
    more likely simply steal Microsofts own keys instead of embedding
    additional keys with an obvious symbol name. Remember: The NSA is the
    world's largest key thief. They have stolen crypto variables from
    well-protected military and government agencies from all over the world
    using the usual repertoire of techniques (bribery, extortion,
    eavesdropping, hacking, infiltration, etc.). If they can do it with
    eastern military agencies, they can most certainly also do it easily
    with Microsoft, which is orders of magnitudes less well protected than
    the usual NSA target. If there is a real NSA backdoor key in Windows,
    that it would certainly be identical to Microsoft's own key.

  • However, there is no mechanism in place for key revocation, so this explanation is not valid.
  • Just in case you cant figure out the code...

    "Enjoy the book"

    Took me about 20 mins to figure it out.

    Very cool.
  • This was reported by Nicko van Someren at the
    Crypto'98 rump session.

    Markus Kuhn was cited in a news-posting I read, and he mentioned the ncipher [], who apparantly used this trick before to get their strong encryption (hardware!) into the windows api. One of their founders is said Nicko van Someren.

Experience varies directly with equipment ruined.