Feds Beg NY Times, Pro Publica Not To Reveal That They’ve Inserted Backdoors Into Internet Encryption

We already wrote about the latest reports coming out of the Snowden leaks, concerning how the NSA and GCHQ have effectively backdoored their way into breaking various encryption schemes by writing the standards themselves and recruiting internal spies within companies to covertly inject backdoors. The reporting on these documents was done jointly by The Guardian, the NY Times and Pro Publica. However, the NY Times coverage has one interesting tidbit not in the Guardian:
Intelligence officials asked The Times and ProPublica not to publish this article, saying that it might prompt foreign targets to switch to new forms of encryption or communications that would be harder to collect or read. The news organizations removed some specific facts but decided to publish the article because of the value of a public debate about government actions that weaken the most powerful tools for protecting the privacy of Americans and others.
Pro Publica, for its part, put up a thorough and detailed explanation for why it chose to publish the story, which is well worth reading:
The story, we believe, is an important one. It shows that the expectations of millions of Internet users regarding the privacy of their electronic communications are mistaken. These expectations guide the practices of private individuals and businesses, most of them innocent of any wrongdoing. The potential for abuse of such extraordinary capabilities for surveillance, including for political purposes, is considerable. The government insists it has put in place checks and balances to limit misuses of this technology. But the question of whether they are effective is far from resolved and is an issue that can only be debated by the people and their elected representatives if the basic facts are revealed.
This is true in so many ways. As the NY Times report notes, there had been a public debate about all of this in the 90s, when there was the big fight over the Clipper Chip, an NSA-created form of encryption with backdoors. That fight ended with the NSA losing… and now it appears that they just ignored that and effectively spent the past few decades doing the same exact thing, but in secret. That deserves public exposure and discussion.

Pro Publica points out that this country is founded on a fundamental belief that you can’t just “trust” the government, and yet the government is asking us to do exactly that here, as they prove time and time again not to be credible or worthy of trust.
There are those who, in good faith, believe that we should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea — championed by such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat. The sort of work ProPublica does — watchdog journalism — is a key element in helping the public play this role.

American history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked power operating in secret. Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again. We need a system that can withstand such challenges. That system requires public knowledge of the power the government possesses. Today’s story is a step in that direction.
Kudos to all three publications for taking this step. It’s unfortunate that they need to do this, but it’s a sad statement on the way the US and UK governments have acted.

Update: The Guardian also mentions that intelligence officials asked them not to publish.

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