About six months ago, the first in a series of leaks that rocked the U.S. intelligence community began to trickle out. The source of those leaks was a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, a man who will likely close out the year as a fugitive from the country of his birth.
Among the most recent revelations: the NSA has spied on communications of players using online videogames such as World of Warcraft; a decryption effort known as Bullrun created to weaken encryption systems and obtain master keys; and the agency's big data analysis and visualization system, known as Boundless Informant. The revelations about the aforementioned programs as well as the NSA's bulk collection of phone records led to several high-profile members of the tech industry -- including Google, Apple, and Twitter -- telling President Obama in a meeting Dec. 17 that the leaks have damaged their industries' reputations.
And now President Obama met today with The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to discuss their recommendations for changes to the NSA's surveillance programs. According to the group's report (PDF), the NSA should stop keeping a database of telephone metadata belonging to Americans. Instead, the information should be kept either by "private providers or a private third-party."
The panel also recommended the NSA not seek to undermine efforts to create secure encryption standards or commercial encryption products and to support efforts that encourage the use of encryption technology to protect data.
"The president's panel agreed with the growing consensus that mass electronic surveillance has no place in American society,” notes Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The review board floats a number of interesting reform proposals, and we're especially happy to see them condemn the NSA's attacks on encryption and other security systems people rely upon. But we’re disappointed that the recommendations suggest a path to continue untargeted spying. Mass surveillance is still heinous, even if private company servers are holding the data instead of government data centers."
As more and more information has come out about the breadth of the NSA's programs, it has become clear that trust is broken at all levels of the Internet, says Jeff Hudson, CEO of encryption management vendor Venafi.
"How do we establish trust and authenticate in an online world? We’re quickly realizing what a world without trust looks like, and enterprises and vendors are starting just now to recognize current state and consequences," Hudson says. "Every organization has to realize that they are under attack, likely compromised, and that without the ability to detect and react to both. None stands a chance of winning the cyberbattles to come without ensuring that the foundations of trust in our modern, digital world are better protected."
Michael Sutton, vice president of security research at Zscaler, says that the tech industry is ramping up public lobbying efforts to make sure customers believe companies are doing everything in their power to keep data private.
"At the very least, the companies which enable communication online want to ensure that they are not seen as being complicit in the data collection programs outside of their legal mandates," Sutton says. "Snowden's revelations will result in financial damage to technology companies as foreign customers seek to avoid companies doing work in the U.S. for fear that they will have private records subpoenaed. How much damage will be inflicted remains to be seen."
While some are quick to blame the NSA, they are losing sight of the fact that the agency is tasked with protecting the nation through intelligence gathering and will do so through any legal means it can, Sutton argues.
"The legal process will no doubt play out, and some NSA activities may be curtailed as a result," he says. "However, even if that occurs, we shouldn't expect the NSA to stop -- just alter their tactics. Those that are shocked by the scope of data gathering efforts should focus their frustration not at the NSA ... but rather on the politicians that put in place a system which both allows for such broad surveillance and has implemented limited oversight to police it."
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Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio