Feds aren't 'knowingly' weakening encryption, says U.S. official

Recent Snowden leaks rattle NIST

WASHINGTON - A U.S. official Tuesday defended the government's encryption efforts in response to disclosures that the National Security Agency (NSA) has the ability to crack encryption protections.

There were a number of published accounts last week, based on documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, that suggest encryption algorithms used by the commercial sector aren't stopping the agency from snooping.

These encryption technologies were developed with the help of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which serves as a quasi-national laboratory for the private sector on encryption.

In commenting on the Snowden leaks, Patrick Gallagher, undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and director of NIST, said that the leaks "would appear to attack our integrity."

Gallagher, speaking at an Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit here, said that NIST's role "is to support a technical understanding of the strongest, most secure computer security, including encryption that we can.

"We are not deliberately, knowingly, working to undermine or weaken encryption technologies," said Gallagher.

But Bruce Schneier, a security expert and author, said he gives little weight to Gallagher's denial. "What is it about him that makes him different from other government and corporate officials who have been lying about what the NSA does?" said Schneier.

Gallagher said the NIST work on encryption is done "in the full light" of the public. Its work is published in technical bulletins and is subject to broad public comment.

"We're committed that any time a new issue or potential vulnerability is identified, that we address that in a forthcoming way," said Gallagher. "This is part of the business of the arms race of cyber security," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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