RSA chief: NSA exploited 'position of trust'; should spin-out security tech group

Did the National Security Agency trick RSA, the security division of EMC, into including a crypto algorithm that was really an NSA cyber-espionage backdoor into the RSA BSAFE toolkit in order to propagate it through tech industry products?

Not only did the Edward Snowden revelations leaked over the past few months suggest that, but an investigative report last December by Reuters went further based on sources to say RSA had a $10 million contract with RSA years ago to include the controversial dual-elliptic curve algorithm developed by the NSA as the default in the BSAFE toolkit. Today, in his keynote at the RSA Conference attended by upwards of 25,000 security professionals from enterprise, government and industry, RSA executive chairman Art Coviello stepped forward to acknowledge some of these accusations, and accused the NSA of exploiting its position of trust with industry.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD What will be hot at RSA? NSA/tech battle, cyberwarfare issues dominate | Hot, new products from RSA +

In an impassioned speech, Coveillo said RSA, like many in industry, has worked with the NSA on projects. But in the case of the NSA-developed algorithm which he didn't directly name, Coviello told conference attendees that RSA feels NSA exploited its position of trust. In its job, NSA plays two roles, he pointed out. In the information assurance directorate (IAD) arm of NSA, it decides on security technologies that might find use in the government, especially the military. The other side of the NSA is tasked with vacuuming up data for cyber-espionage purposes and now is prepared to take an offensive role in cyber-attacks and cyberwar.

"We can't be sure which part of the NSA we're working with," said Coviello with a tone of anguish. He implied that if the NSA induced RSA to include a secret backdoor in any RSA product, it happened without RSA's consent or awareness. Coviello went on to say he supported the recent recommendation in the report from the Presidential board on privacy and the NSA that advised splitting the NSA into two parts. This in theory could result in separating the offensive and defensive roles of the NSA, Coviello said.

"The IAD should be spun out and managed by a separate organization," said Coveillo. He said that would be a good step to "re-build trust" with the NSA and the U.S. government. He said it's clear that all over the world that intelligence agencies from many governments do spy on each other. But Coviello said it was his hope that in this situation of competing interests between governments, business and individuals, there will eventually be developed new "societal norms" that will lead to international cooperation and world peace.

"The collision of these agendas reflects the lack of societal norms," said Coveillo. With that, Coviello said the world is at a turning point in which it must more directly confront the prospect of cyber-weapons and that governments around the world should meet in some kind of forum to take on these issues and devise a "rule of law" in all this for the sake of peace.

Coviello went on to say that he thinks that use of cyber-weapons on the Internet and waging cyberwar should essentially be renounced, and that there should instead be more prosecution of cyber-criminals. He also said the world should be pushing to ensure "economic activity on the Internet goes unfettered" and to respect the "privacy of all individuals."

Coviello even evoked the days of President John Kennedy and the era when the world had to grapple with nuclear weapons proliferation. "The genie is out of the bottle in the case of cyberweapons, Coviello said. And he added those using cyberweapons can have them turned against them.

Coveillo concluded by urging all of industry to take an active role in all this, saying world leaders need to be "inspired" to do all this for the sake of world peace.

Whether this helps RSA itself, which has faced a significant portion of anger from many security experts since the accusations about the NSA involvement in the BSAFE toolkit surfaced, remains to be seen. But Coviello's denouncing of government deception and a call to make the world safe from cyberwar did apparently leave a strong impression on some in the audience. "It was amazing," said Tom Cross, director of security research at Lancope.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail:

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags National Security AgencyBSAReuterssecuritynsaendpoint securityrsa 2014emc

More about EMC CorporationIDGLancopeNational Security AgencyNSAReuters AustraliaRSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Ellen Messmer

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place