February 26, 2015—During Monday’s Cybersecurity for a New America conference in Washington, D.C., the Yahoo! Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos and Mike Rodgers, the director of the National Security Agency, had a very enlightening exchange.
During the Q&A, Stamos reproduced concerns shared by many tech companies. Questions usually only asked by the anti-NSA spying movement that took shape after the Edward Snowden revelations could be heard during the exchange. And as expected, NSA’s Rogers did not seem too sympathetic.
Seventeen months ago, Snowden revealed that backdoors built within cryptography technologies had been engineered by the NSA. These backdoors give NSA agents the power to decrypt communications meant to stay private. While the policy continues to suffer scrutiny, NSA proponents show their ignorance when confronted by tech experts.
That’s what happened when Stamos discussed the backdoors with Rogers.
At some point during the conversation, Stamos asked Rogers if he believed it is fair to built backdoors for the U.S. government to have access to these companies’ data. The company has 1.3 billion users all over the world. If Yahoo! is required to produce these golden keys for the U.S., it would also be required to build the same golden keys for other governments. Rogers did not want to answer the question.
“Well, do you believe we should build backdoors for other countries?”
Rogers proceeded to claim the backdoors should be created, but with a framework to protect it:
“You don’t want the FBI and you don’t want the NSA unilaterally deciding, so, what are we going to access and what are we not going to access? That shouldn’t be for us. I just believe that this is achievable. We’ll have to work our way through it. And I’m the first to acknowledge there are international implications. I think we can work our way through this.”
Again, Stamos asked if Rogers believed that, once other countries pass laws on their own, Yahoo! should be legally required to produce backdoors to their governments. Rogers responded by repeating his last statement: “I think we can work our way through this.”
All Stamos said to that was that the Chinese and Russian governments would probably agree with Mr. Rogers.
As the NSA Director attempted to further convince Stamos, he claimed the United States as a nation must talk over its issues:
“…we have got to be willing as a nation to have a dialogue. This simplistic characterization of one-side-is-good and one-side-is-bad is a terrible place for us to be as a nation. We have got to come to grips with some really hard, fundamental questions. I’m watching risk and threat do this, while trust has done that. No matter what your view on the issue is, or issues, my only counter would be that that’s a terrible place for us to be as a country. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to change that.”
That’s when the debate moderator stepped in:
“You’re saying it’s your position that in encryption programs, there should be a backdoor to allow, within a legal framework approved by the Congress or some civilian body, the ability to go in a backdoor?”
Roger’s response in full:
“So ‘backdoor’ is not the context I would use. When I hear the phrase ‘backdoor,’ I think, ‘well, this is kind of shady. Why would you want to go in the backdoor? It would be very public.’ Again, my view is: We can create a legal framework for how we do this. It isn’t something we have to hide, per se. You don’t want us unilaterally making that decision, but I think we can do this.”
Many believe Roger is attempting to place what the U.S. government is asking from tech companies in a gray area. By not calling what the NSA wants a “backdoor,” the public may not feel the real impact of what this kind of violation could mean to its private data.
What are your thoughts on Rogers, the NSA spying program, and the government’s efforts to make it more acceptable? Share in the comments below.