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NSA Directorates

An earlier post made the point that security problems can come from subdivisions of an organization pursuing incompatible goals. In the Cold War, for example, lack of coordination between the CIA and the State Department allowed the KGB to identify undercover agents.

The Guardian reports that the NSA is reorganizing to address this issue. Previously, its offensive and defensive functions were carried out by two “directorates”: the Signals Intelligence Directorate and the Information Assurance Directorate, respectively. Now, the two directorates will merge.

It seems to be a controversial decision:

Merging the two departments goes against the recommendation of some computer security experts, technology executives and the Obama administration’s surveillance reform commission, all of which have argued that those two missions are inherently contradictory and need to be further separated.

The NSA could decide not tell a tech company to patch a security flaw, they argue, if it knows it could be used to hack into a targeted machine. This could leave consumers at risk.

It’s doubtful that the NSA considers consumer protection part of its main objectives. This is how the Information Assurance Directorate describes its own purpose:

IAD delivers mission enhancing cyber security technologies, products, and services that enable customers and clients to secure their networks; trusted engineering solutions that provide customers with flexible, timely and risk sensitive security solutions; as well as, traditional IA engineering and fielded solutions support.

As explained here, “customer” is NSA jargon for “the White House, the State Department, the CIA, the US mission to the UN, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others.” It doesn’t refer to “customers” in the sense of citizens doing business with companies.

Simultaneously patching and exploiting the same vulnerabilities seems like an inefficient use of agency resources, unless it’s important to keep up appearances. After the Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator and the Snowden revelations, the NSA is no longer credible as a source of assurance (except for its customers). Now, the agency can make a single decision about each vulnerability it finds: patch or exploit?

Other former officials said the restructuring at Fort Meade just formalizes what was already happening there. After all, NSA’s hackers and defenders work side by side in the agency’s Threat Operations Center in southern Maryland.

“Sometimes you got to just own it,” said Dave Aitel, a former NSA researcher and now chief executive at the security company Immunity. “Actually, come to think of it, that’s a great new motto for them too.”

Even President Obama’s surveillance reform commission from 2013, which recommended that the Information Assurance Directorate should become its own agency, acknowledged the following (page 194 of PDF):

There are, of course, strong technical reasons for information-sharing between the offense and defense for cyber security. Individual experts learn by having experience both in penetrating systems and in seeking to block penetration. Such collaboration could and must occur even if IAD is organizationally separate.

As David Graeber puts it in The Utopia of Rules, “All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to.” If something needs to be done, with a lot of potential costs and benefits, it can’t help to use an organizational chart to hide the ways that work gets done in practice.

Tags: exploit, NSA, vulnerability, web application security

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