Techies vs. NSA: Encryption arms race escalates

SAN JOSE: Encrypted email, secure instant messaging and other privacy services are booming in the wake of the National Security Agency’s recently revealed surveillance programs. But the flood of new computer security services is of variable quality, and much of it, experts say, can bog down computers and isn’t likely to keep out spies.

In the end, the new geek wars -between tech industry programmers on the one side and government spooks, fraudsters and hacktivists on the other- may leave people’s PCs and businesses’ computer systems encrypted to the teeth but no better protected from hordes of savvy code crackers.

“Every time a situation like this erupts you’re going to have a frenzy of snake oil sellers who are going to throw their products into the street,” says Carson Sweet, CEO of San Francisco-based data storage security firm CloudPassage. “It’s quite a quandary for the consumer.”

Encryption isn’t meant to keep hackers out, but when it’s designed and implemented correctly, it alters the way messages look. Intruders who don’t have a decryption key see only gobbledygook.

A series of disclosures from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden this year has exposed sweeping U.S. government surveillance programs. The revelations are sparking fury and calls for better encryption from citizens and leaders in France, Germany, Spain and Brazil who were reportedly among those tapped. Both Google and Yahoo, whose data center communications lines were also reportedly tapped, have committed to boosting encryption and online security. Although there’s no indication Facebook was tapped, the social network is also upping its encryption systems.

“Yahoo has never given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency. Ever,” wrote Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in a Nov. 18 post on the company’s Tumblr blog announcing plans to encrypt all of its services by early next year.“There is nothing more important to us than protecting our users’ privacy.”

For those who want to take matters into their own hands, encryption software has been proliferating across the Internet since the Snowden revelations broke. – Swedish for “secret” – is marketed as a secure messaging app for your phone. MailPile aims to combine a Gmail-like user friendly interface with a sometimes clunky technique known as public key encryption. Younited hopes to keep spies out of your cloud storage, and Pirate Browser aims to keep spies from seeing your search history. A host of other security-centered programs with names like Silent Circle, RedPhone, Threema, TextSecure, and Wickr all promise privacy.

Many of the people behind these programs are well known for pushing the boundaries of privacy and security online. is being developed by Peter Sunde, co-founder of notorious file sharing website The Pirate Bay. Finland’s F-Secure, home of Internet security expert Mikko Hypponen, is behind Younited. Dreadlocked hacker hero Moxie Marlinspike is the brains behind RedPhone, while Phil Zimmerman, one of the biggest names in privacy, is trying to sell the world on Silent Circle. Even flamboyant file sharing kingpin Kim Dotcom is getting in on the secure messaging game with an encrypted email service.

The quality of these new programs and services is uneven, and a few have run into trouble. Nadim Kobeissi, developed encrypted instant messaging service Cryptocat in 2011 as an alternative to services such as Facebook chat and Skype. The Montreal-based programmer received glowing press for Cryptocat’s ease of use, but he suffered embarrassment earlier this year when researchers discovered an error in the program’s code, which may have exposed users’ communications. Kobeissi used the experience to argue that shiny new privacy apps need to be aggressively vetted before users can trust them.

“You need to be vigilant,” he says. “We’re two years old and we’re just starting to reach the kind of maturity I would want.” also encountered difficulties and angered users when its creators said they wouldn’t use open source – or publicly auditable – code. And Silent Circle abruptly dropped its encrypted email service in August, expressing concern that it could not keep the service safe from government intrusion.

“What we found is the encryption services range in quality,” says George Kurtz, CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based CrowdStrike, a big data, security technology company. “I feel safe using some built by people who know what they are doing , but others are Johnny-come-latelies who use a lot of buzzwords but may not be all that useful.”

Even so, private services report thousands of new users, and nonprofit, free encryption services say they have also see sharp upticks in downloads.

And for many users, encryption really isn’t enough to avoid the US government’s prying eyes.

Paris-based Bouygues Telecom told its data storage provider Pogoplug in San Francisco that it needs the data center moved out of the US to get out from under the provisions of US law. So this month, PogoPlug CEO Daniel Putterman is keeping Bouygues as a client by shipping a multi-million dollar data center, from cabinets to cables, from California to France.

“They want French law to apply, not US law,” says Putterman, who is also arranging a similar move for an Israeli client.

Bouygues spokesman Alexandre Andre doesn’t draw a direct connection with the Patriot Act, and says Bouygues’ arrangement with Pogoplug is driven by concerns over performance and privacy. Andre says Bouygues wants the data stored in France, but it was up to Pogoplug to decide whether this would be done on Bouygues’ own servers or Pogoplug’s.

“There is a general worry in France over data security, and storing data in France permits us to reassure our clients,” Andre says. The arrangement also helps improve the service’s performance, Andre says, another reason for the move.

For Pogoplug, business is booming – it’s garnered close to 1 million paid subscribers in its first year – and Putterman says the company is anxious to accommodate concerned clients. And this month, Pogoplug launched a $49 software package called Safeplug that prevents third parties, from the NSA to Google, from learning about a user’s location or browsing habits.

But many warn that encryption offers a false sense of security.

“The fundamental designers of cryptography are in an arms race right now, but there are a series of weaknesses and missing oversights that have nothing to do with encryption that leave people vulnerable,” says Patrick Peterson, CEO of Silicon Valley-based email security firm Agari. And many that do work, bog down or freeze computers, forcing “a trade-off between security and convenience,” he says.

In any case, most attacks don’t happen because some cybercriminal used complicated methods to gain entry into a network, he adds.

“Most attacks occur because someone made a mistake. With phishing emails, it just takes one person to unwittingly open an attachment or click on a malicious link, and from there, cybercriminals are able to get a foothold,” Peterson says.

In addition, experts agree that with enough time and money, any encryption can be broken. And already the NSA has bypassed -or altogether cracked- much of the digital encryption that businesses and everyday Web surfers use, according to reports based on Snowden’s disclosures. The reports describe how the NSA invested billions of dollars, starting in 2000, to make nearly everyone’s secrets available for government consumption.

Meanwhile, the US government’s computing power continues to grow. This fall, the NSA plans to open a $1.7 billion cyber-arsenal – a Utah data center filled with super-powered computers designed to store massive amounts of classified information, including data that awaits decryption.


History of Pentagon


Alternative Designs

July 21, 1941

This drawing creatively explored other options for the proposed War Department building and offers an interesting take on what might have been. This drawing shows the use of inward spokes instead of the concentric rings.


The River Entrance


This sketch is a rendering of the proposed Pentagon’s River Entrance, drawn by Ray Kennedy prior to construction of the building itself.


The Mall Entrance


Many ideas regarding the construction and appearance of the Pentagon were proposed prior to settling on the final version which was ultimately built. This drawing shows an example of artistic creativity with the landscaping in this sketch of the proposed Pentagon Mall.


An Artist’s Rendition


This drawing depicts the construction of the Pentagon as it occurred.



Interior of the Center Courtyard During Construction.

July 1, 1942

The wood forms used in casting the concrete walls can be seen. These forms, made from 6″ and 8″ wide boards, give the walls the texture we see today.



Center of the courtyard, West of the E section

July 1, 1942

Showing E Section, 2nd Floor – Floor Slabs ready to be poured. Note pan construction.



A Bird’s Eye View

October 22, 1941

Showing “A” and “B” section of War Department Office Building in center of picture. “A” section shows first floor forms in place. “B” section with pile caps forms in place. The old airport can be seen to the right of the building.



Construction Underway

January 17, 1942

Progress of the construction project.

History of the Pentagon

Three buildings housing great institutions of the U.S. government have come to be regarded as national monuments and have become part of national and international history: the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon. Like the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the House of Parliament in London, they have acquired a distinct public character as symbols of government, and their names evoke worldwide recognition.

The Pentagon is three in one: It is a building, an institution, and a symbol. It is an engineering marvel—a product of its time and civilization. Born of necessity, built in great haste, and occupied section by section, it turned out to be a much better building than anyone expected or had a right to expect. In appearance and soundness of structure it exceeded expectations. It is doubtful that any building of comparable size and utility has been constructed before or since so expeditiously.

The institutional status of the Pentagon derives from its role as nerve center of the country’s armed forces—the largest of U.S. government institutions. From 1942 to 1947 it housed the War Department and since then the major elements of the Department of Defense: the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the highest echelons of the headquarters of the four services. From the Pentagon the President and the secretary of defense have exercised worldwide command and control of the country’s armed forces.

A symbol to the nation and the world since its beginning, the Pentagon above all is a metaphor of American power and influence with all the good and bad images such a symbol suggests. For most Americans, it is the embodiment of U.S. strength and authority, the nerve center of the military establishment, a rock of security. To others it is a symbol of militarism and violence, a “temple of death.” Over the years the traditional antimilitary instinct of the country has given way to acceptance of the Pentagon as a necessary bulwark in a violent and unstable world.

The Pentagon has also symbolized the enormous growth and influence of the military establishment in a country with an enduring antimilitary tradition. At the time of its construction in 1941-43, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and most of the government and the public believed that the building was a response to temporary circumstances and that it would not be required for the military after the war, when conditions would return to normalcy. But the post-World War II world did not return to what Americans regarded as normalcy. Much of it remained in flux, frequent and convulsive changes occurred, and the country encountered persistent and powerful threats to the security of the United States and its friends. Hence, the compulsion to maintain large military forces that averaged almost 2.5 million men and women between 1945 and 1990, nearly 8 times as many as before 1940.

This required a much larger military structure in Washington, of which the Pentagon became the flagship with the creation in 1947 of the National Military Establishment, re-titled the Department of Defense in 1949. Strong consensus on the necessity to provide for security against threats was always tempered by the hope that the need for such large military forces would be short-lived.

Even before it was completed the Pentagon entered history. From the time it became public knowledge that it was to be built, it excited attention and comment, initially only in Washington but eventually throughout the land. During its construction there evolved a miscellany of fact, fiction, myth, whimsy, illusion, and fantasy from which came a folklore of humor, black humor, and hostility that still endures after half a century. Indeed, the lore grew by accretion over the years. After 50 years it is time to set the record straight.