Bill Gates’ eagerness for Apple to allow the FBI to install backdoor software on its iPhone devices may stem from the fact that in 1999 Microsoft allowed the NSA to build a backdoor into all Windows software:
A careless mistake by Microsoft programmers has revealed that special access codes prepared by the US National Security Agency have been secretly built into Windows. The NSA access system is built into every version of the Windows operating system now in use, except early releases of Windows 95 (and its predecessors). The discovery comes close on the heels of the revelations earlier this year that another US software giant, Lotus, had built an NSA “help information” trapdoor into its Notes system, and that security functions on other software systems had been deliberately crippled.
The first discovery of the new NSA access system was made two years ago by British researcher Dr Nicko van Someren [an expert in computer security]. But it was only a few weeks ago when a second researcher rediscovered the access system. With it, he found the evidence linking it to NSA.
Two weeks ago, a US security company came up with conclusive evidence that the second key belongs to NSA. Like Dr van Someren, Andrew Fernandez, chief scientist with Cryptonym of Morrisville, North Carolina, had been probing the presence and significance of the two keys. Then he checked the latest Service Pack release for Windows NT4, Service Pack 5. He found that Microsoft’s developers had failed to remove or “strip” the debugging symbols used to test this software before they released it. Inside the code were the labels for the two keys. One was called “KEY”. The other was called “NSAKEY”.
Fernandes reported his re-discovery of the two CAPI keys, and their secret meaning, to “Advances in Cryptology, Crypto’99” conference held in Santa Barbara. According to those present at the conference, Windows developers attending the conference did not deny that the “NSA” key was built into their software. But they refused to talk about what the key did, or why it had been put there without users’ knowledge.
A third key?!
But according to two witnesses attending the conference, even Microsoft’s top crypto programmers were astonished to learn that the version of ADVAPI.DLL shipping with Windows 2000 contains not two, but three keys. Brian LaMachia, head of CAPI development at Microsoft was “stunned” to learn of these discoveries, by outsiders. The latest discovery by Dr van Someren is based on advanced search methods which test and report on the “entropy” of programming code.
Within the Microsoft organisation, access to Windows source code is said to be highly compartmentalized, making it easy for modifications to be inserted without the knowledge of even the respective product managers.
Researchers are divided about whether the NSA key could be intended to let US government users of Windows run classified cryptosystems on their machines or whether it is intended to open up anyone’s and everyone’s Windows computer to intelligence gathering techniques deployed by NSA’s burgeoning corps of “information warriors”.
According to Fernandez of Cryptonym, the result of having the secret key inside your Windows operating system “is that it is tremendously easier for the NSA to load unauthorized security services on all copies of Microsoft Windows, and once these security services are loaded, they can effectively compromise your entire operating system“. The NSA key is contained inside all versions of Windows from Windows 95 OSR2 onwards.
“How is an IT manager to feel when they learn that in every copy of Windows sold, Microsoft has a ‘back door’ for NSA – making it orders of magnitude easier for the US government to access your computer?” he asked.
Gates also worked with the NSA, liaising with them in the development of Microsoft’s Windows 7 software:
The National Security Agency (NSA) worked with Microsoft on the development of Windows 7, an agency official acknowledged yesterday during testimony before Congress.
“Working in partnership with Microsoft and elements of the Department of Defense, NSA leveraged our unique expertise and operational knowledge of system threats and vulnerabilities to enhance Microsoft’s operating system security guide without constraining the user to perform their everyday tasks, whether those tasks are being performed in the public or private sector,” Richard Schaeffer, the NSA’s information assurance director, told the Senate’s Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security yesterday as part of a prepared statement.
“All this was done in coordination with the product release, not months or years later during the product lifecycle,” Schaeffer added. “This will improve the adoption of security advice, as it can be implemented during installation and then later managed through the emerging SCAP standards.”
Security Content Automation Protocol, or SCAP, is a set of standards for automating chores such as managing vulnerabilities and measuring security compliance. The National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) oversees the SCAP standards.
This is not the first time that the NSA has partnered with Microsoft during Windows development. In 2007, the agency confirmed that it had a hand in Windows Vista as part of an initiative to ensure that the operating system was secure from attack and would work with other government software. Before that, the NSA provided guidance on how best to secure Windows XP and Windows 2000.
According to Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronics Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the NSA’s involvement with operating system development goes back even farther. “This battle goes back to at least the crypto wars of the early ’90s,” said Rotenberg, who remembered testifying about the agency’s role in private sector computer security standards in 1989.
But when the NSA puts hands on Windows, that raises a red flag for Rotenberg, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based public interest research center. “When NSA offers to help the private sector on computer security, the obvious concern is that it will also build in backdoors that enables tracking users and intercepting user communications,” Rotenberg said in an e-mail. “And private sector firms are reluctant to oppose these ‘suggestions’ since the US government is also their biggest customer and opposition to the NSA could mean to loss of sales.”
Rotenberg’s worries stem from the NSA’s reputation as the intelligence agency best known for its eavesdropping of electronic messaging, including cell phone calls and e-mail.
Andrew Storms, the director of security operations at nCircle Security, didn’t put much credence in the idea that Microsoft would allow the NSA to build a hidden entrance to Windows 7. “Would it be surprising to most people that there was a backdoor? No, not with the political agenda of prior administrations,” said Storms. “My gut, though, tells me that Microsoft, as a business, would not want to do that, at least not in a secretive way.”
Roger Thompson, chief research officer at AVG Technologies, agreed. “I can’t imagine NSA and Microsoft would do anything deliberate because the repercussions would be enormous if they got caught,” he said in an interview via instant messaging.
“Having said that, I think we should understand that there is every likelihood that certain foreign governments are constantly looking for vulnerabilities that they can use for targeted attacks,” Thompson continued. “So if they’re poking at us, I think it’s reasonable to assume that we’re doing something similar. But I seriously doubt an official NSA-Microsoft alliance.”
The NSA’s Schaeffer added that his agency is also working on engaging other major software makers, including Apple, Sun and Red Hat, on security standards for their products.
“More and more, we find that protecting national security systems demands teaming with public and private institutions to raise the information assurance level of products and services more broadly,” Schaeffer said.
Microsoft was not immediately available for comment on the NSA’s participation in Windows 7’s development.
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