The Threat At Home — The NSA And The “Golden Age of Spying”

“An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could derail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”

These are the warnings of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last October. He argued that the potential for a “cyber Pearl Harbor” would be at the hands of foreign computer hackers from China, Iran, Russia North Korea and our other known enemies around the world.

To be sure, Panetta was spot on: The NY Times, American Express, Wall Street Journal and HSBC amongst others have all been hacked. Russian hackers were just charged this summer in the biggest data breach case after they stole 160 million credit card numbers resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for major corporations worldwide.

And while we haven’t seen contaminated water supplies, the pace at which the world is changing and how much the US, our values, and what we stand for is abhorred in large, dangerous pockets of the world, it can’t be that far off.

This is surely troubling. But newly disclosed documents ring perhaps even greater alarm bells. These documents reveal that NSA is guilty of extreme hacking themselves.

The NSA is winning its long running war on encryption: it has circumvented or cracked majority of the digital scrambling that guards global commerce and banking systems. This includes data like trade secrets, medical records, emails, telephone conversations and online chats.

The highly classified program, Bullrun, is one of the NSA’s closest guarded secrets – or was until Edward Snowden leaked details of NSA programs that majority of Americans, as well as Congressional representatives, had no idea were in effect.

According to the NY Times, the NSA hacked into target computers to snare encrypted messages before they were encrypted. And in some cases, companies have reported that the government coerced them into handing over their master encryption keys or building in a back door.

“For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies,” said a 2010 memo describing a briefing about N.S.A. accomplishments for employees of its British counterpart. “Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”

Exploitable? While I understand the meaning in the memo, the use of the word “exploit” is all too apt for how I, and majority of Americans, feel about the NSA’s overreaching and clear breaches of our Fourth Amendment rights.

There is little doubt that there is more to this story and that Snowden’s leak will be a slow drip that will continue to shed light on the true nature of the NSA and, indeed, the Obama administration that supports them in their endeavors.

The President has his hands full with the impending conflict in Syria, the G-20 in Russia and his usual duties both domestic and international. But it is crucial that he take this crisis with the NSA seriously. Their practices are truly un-American.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Congressman Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, has proposed legislation that would prohibit the NSA from installing “back doors” into encryption – a step in the right direction.

Paul Kocher, a leading cryptographer, commented that, “the intelligence community has worried about ‘going dark’ forever, but today they are conducting instant, total invasion of privacy with limited effort. This is the golden age of spying.”

We are now in the precious position that we must be vigilant both at home and abroad. We must watch our own government and our foreign enemies – a truly frightening reality.