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The NSA is *Not* Securing Our Nation...On Purpose

By now you should have heard at least something about the WannaCry ransomware attack that’s been going on over the last few days. When I ask people about it and what they know, most have vague responses like, “those computers must be old or not updated” or “people were stupid and did something wrong.”

While both have some truth in it, this analysis by Richard Clarke* about an ABC News story on WannaCry had one of the best paragraphs that describe the #1 problem I’ve been mad about for years which was the root cause of this cyberattack, namely that the NSA is not disclosing so-called zero-day vulnerabilities (zero-days are ones that aren’t yet known so companies can fix them):

First, America’s own National Security Agency (NSA) found the vulnerability in Microsoft Windows that would permit a hacker to gain control of a device. When the agency found that vulnerability, it should have told Microsoft right away, so that the error could have been fixed as part of the regular monthly “patching” program without calling attention to it.

Yep. The NSA should have told Microsoft right away so they could patch the vulnerability but then the NSA couldn’t use it themselves. The NSA has a long history of not disclosing vulnerabilities though the NSA chief claims they do disclose 91% of them (which means they likely keep the good stuff, the other 9% that are devastating like WannaCry has been when leaked, to themselves).

Clearly there needs to be a balance, as this Georgetown Security Studies article suggests, between national security and actions that cause national weakness, which I would argue the NSA is doing by keeping vulnerabilities to themselves. The NSA could go a long way toward protecting the American people by disclosing vulnerabilities that are obvious to them and potentially crippling to our nation, as well as not being breached and having their tools stolen.

That Georgetown article had these words to say about the United States’ Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) that should compel the NSA to be more forthcoming, but it contains a loophole that anything before 2014 doesn’t have to be disclosed (which is millions upon millions of computers and servers running older versions of operating systems and software):

Established under President Barack Obama in 2014, the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) is an interagency framework used to determine whether the US government and its contractors should disclose software and hardware vulnerabilities to the public and private sector or foreign allies.

The public and private sector have increasingly called for full transparency of the VEP and disclosure of all known exploits. According to the National Security Agency (NSA) Director Admiral Michael Rogers, the NSA shares more than 90% of the vulnerabilities it discovers. However, the VEP currently provides a loophole that exempts any vulnerabilities discovered before 2014 from the vetting process. This is problematic for transparency given the long shelf life of a zero-day.

Sadly, I don’t think the current White House administration will do anything to thwart the NSA’s runaway, do-anything-they-want agenda. Transparency is certainly not their forté so my expectations are low.

Let’s hope Congress steps-in and helps drive national cyber security a little harder when it comes to the NSA actually caring about national internet security vs. just performing signals intelligence while the nation’s I.T. infrastructure is hacked.

This WannaCry ransomware attack is a wakeup call to this nation (and the world) that all of the intelligence agencies (we’re looking at you too, CIA) had better start helping the world instead of acting like a bunch of high school hackers exploiting whatever weakness they can before they are found out and get caught.

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About Steve Borsch

I'm CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you're already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.

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