RSA Laboratories

6.2.2 What is the NSA?

NSA is the National Security Agency, a highly secretive agency of the U.S. government created by Harry S. Truman in 1952. The NSA's very existence was kept secret for many years. For a history of the NSA, see Bamford [Bam82]. The NSA has a mandate to listen to and decode all foreign communications of interest to the security of the United States. It has also used its power in various ways to slow the spread of publicly available cryptography in order to prevent national enemies from employing encryption methods that are presumably too strong for the NSA to break.

As the premier cryptographic government agency, the NSA has huge financial and computer resources and employs a host of cryptographers. Developments in cryptography achieved at the NSA are not made public; this secrecy has led to many rumors about the NSA's ability to break popular cryptosystems like DES (see Section 3.2), as well as rumors that the NSA has secretly placed weaknesses, called ``trapdoors,'' in government-endorsed cryptosystems. These rumors have never been proved or disproved. Also the criteria used by the NSA in selecting cryptography standards have never been made public.

Recent advances in the computer and telecommunications industries have placed NSA actions under unprecedented scrutiny, and the agency has become the target of heavy criticism for hindering U.S. industries that wish to use or sell strong cryptographic tools. The two main reasons for this increased criticism are the collapse of the Soviet Union and the development and spread of commercially available public-key cryptographic tools. Under pressure, the NSA may be forced to change its policies.

The NSA's charter limits its activities to foreign intelligence. However, the NSA is concerned with the development of commercial cryptography, since the availability of strong encryption tools through commercial channels could impede the NSA's mission of decoding international communications. In other words, the NSA is worried that strong commercial cryptography may fall into the wrong hands.

The NSA has stated that it has no objection to the use of secure cryptography by U.S. industry. It also has no objection to cryptographic tools used for authentication, as opposed to privacy. However, the NSA is widely viewed to be following policies that have the practical effect of limiting and/or weakening the cryptographic tools used by law-abiding U.S. citizens and corporations; see Barlow [Bar92] for a discussion of NSA's effect on commercial cryptography.

The NSA exerts influence over commercial cryptography in several ways. NSA serves as an advisor to the Bureau of Export Administration (BXA) at the Commerce Department, which is the front-line agency on export determination. In the past, BXA generally has not approved export of products used for encryption unless the key size is strictly limited. It did, however, approve export of any products used for authentication purposes only, no matter how large the key size, as long as the product cannot be easily converted to be used for encryption. Today the situation is different with dramatically relaxed restrictions on export regulations. The NSA has also blocked encryption methods from being published or patented, citing a national security threat; see [Lan88] for a discussion of this practice.

Additionally, the NSA serves an ``advisory'' role to NIST in the evaluation and selection of official U.S. government computer security standards. In this capacity, it has played a prominent and controversial role in the selection of DES and in the development of the group of standards known as the Capstone project. The NSA can also exert market pressure on U.S. companies to produce (or refrain from producing) cryptographic goods, since the NSA itself is often a large customer of these companies. Examples of NSA-supported goods include Fortezza (see Question 6.2.6), the Defense Messaging System (DMS), and MISSI, the Multilevel Information System Security Initiative.

Cryptography is in the public eye as never before and has become the subject of national public debate. The status of cryptography, and the NSA's role in it, will probably continue to change over the next few years.

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