NIST's future without the NSA

Can the standard agency develop effective cryptographic and cybersecurity standards without the help of the National Security Agency?

Will the National Institute of Standards and Technology break its close relationship with the National Security Agency in developing cryptographic and cybersecurity standards? That seems very likely following a recent report by an outside panel of experts, and it will have implications for federal agencies.

The report by the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT), which was released July 14, came after last year’s revelation as a part of the Edward Snowden leaks that the NSA had inserted a “backdoor” into a NIST encryption standard that’s used to generate random numbers. NIST Special Publication 800-90A, the latest version published in 2012, describes ways for generating random bits using a deterministic random bit generator (DRBG). That’s an important step for many of the cryptographic processes used to secure computer systems and protect data.

The backdoor allowed the NSA to basically circumvent the security of any system it wanted to get data from, and that could be a substantial number. The DRBG was used as the default in RSA’s FIPS 140-2 validated BSAFE cryptographic library, for example, before that was ended in 2013. Up until then, BSAFE had been widely used by both industry and government to secure data.

The main damage done by these revelations is not in whatever data the NSA managed to extract because of this, but in the confidence organizations will have in what NIST does in cybersecurity going forward. And for government agencies that’s critical, since they are required by law to adhere to the standards NIST puts out.

NIST removed the offending DRBG algorithm from 800-90A in April and reissued the standard. It advised federal agencies to ask vendors whose products they used if their cryptographic modules rely on DRBG and, if so, to ask them to reconfigure those products to use alternative algorithms.

But the damage has been done. Not only do other NIST standards developed in coordination with the NSA now need critical review, according to VCAT committee member Ron Rivest, a professor at MIT, but the process for developing future standards needs reassessment and reformulation.”

As Edward Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University and another of the VCAT members, wrote in the committee’s report, if government has to conform to NIST standards, but everyone else uses something different, it “would be worse for everybody and would prevent government agencies from using commercial off-the-shelf technologies and frustrate interoperation between government and non-government systems.”

Simply put, that’s not possible. Government is no longer in the position of being able to develop systems for its own use and depends absolutely on commercial products. So, the scramble to shore up NIST’s reputation is on. 

NIST says it has already instituted processes to strengthen oversight of its standards making, and could make more along the lines of the recommendations made in the VCAT report. Congress got in on the act a few months ago with an amendment to the FIRST Act, a bill to support science and research, that strips the requirement in law that NIST consult with the NSA when developing information security standards.

However, it still allows NIST to voluntarily consult with the NSA, something the VCAT report also goes to some lengths to recommend. That’s a tacit admission that NIST and the government overall can’t do away with NSA input on security. There have been suggestions that the NSA’s role in information assurance should be given over the Department of Homeland Security or the Defense Department, but that seems unlikely.

The fact is that the NSA probably has the greatest depth of expertise in cryptography and security in the entire government, and both the DHS and DOD rely on it as much as NIST does. How to reconcile all of that while urgently repairing the trust that’s needed of NIST and its standards, both in government and industry, will be one of the more fascinating things to watch over the next few years.

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