Wednesday, April 19, 2006


National Security Agency. An agency of the Federal Government. NSA is the Federal agency responsible for the design and use of nonmilitary encryption technology, developing sophisticated codes to scramble data, voice or video information. In short, it is charged with signals intelligence and is widely assumed to monitor all communications traffic (phone, fax, data, video, etc.) into and out of the United States with foreign countries. It is barred from intercepting domestic communications. NSA grabbed the headlines in 1993 and 1994 when it adopted its most visible attempt to outgun cybervillains with something called the Clipper Chip. The idea is that the Clipper Chip (a microprocessor) would be installed in every phone, computer, and personal digital assistant in America would carry a device identification number or electronic “key” — a family key and unit key unique to each Clipper Chip. The device key is split into two numbers that, when combined into what’s called a Law Enforcement Access Field number, can unscramble the encrypted messages. The device keys and the corresponding device numbers, according to NSA proposals, would be kept by the US government through key escrow agents. Under a plan proposed, the attorney general would deposit the two device keys in huge, separate electronic database vaults. One key would be held by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the other by the Automated Systems Division of the U.S. Treasury. Access to these keys would be limited to government officials with legal authorization to conduct a digital wiretap. When a law enforcement agency wants to tap into information encrypted by the Clipper Chip, they must obtain a court order and then apply to each of the escrow agents. The agents electronically send their key into to an electronic black box operated by the law enforcement agency. When these keys are electronically inserted, encrypted conversations stream into the black box and come as standard voice transmissions or as ASCII characters in the case of electronic mail. At least that’s the theory. American Industry resisted the Clipper Chip and NSA backed down, only to start pumping for something Fortezza. See NSA Line Eater. Since I wrote the above, NSA has sort of come part way of its secret shell. It’s now got its own Web site,, in which it describes itself thus: The National Security Agency (NSA) was established by Presidential directive in 1952 as a separately organized agency within the Department of Defense under the direction, authority, and control of the Secretary of Defense, who acts as Executive Agent of the U.S. government for the production of communications intelligence (COMINT) information. The Central Security Service (CSS) (which is part of NSA) was established by Presidential memorandum in 1972 in order to provide a more unified cryptologic organization within the Department of Defense. The Director, NSA, serves as chief of the CSS and exercises control over the signals intelligence activities of the military services. The resources of NSA/CSS are organized for the accomplishment of two national missions: The information systems security or INFOSEC mission provides leadership, products, and services to protect classified and unclassified national security systems against exploitation through interception, unauthorized access, or related technical intelligence threats. This mission also supports the Director, NSA, in fulfilling his responsibilities as Executive Agent for interagency operations security training. The foreign signals intelligence or SIGINT mission allows for an effective, unified organization and control of all the foreign signals collection and processing activities of the United States. NSA is authorized to produce SIGINT in accordance with objectives, requirements and priorities established by the Director of Central Intelligence with the advice of the National Foreign Intelligence Board. Executive Order 12333 of 4 December 1981 describes in more detail the responsibilities of the National Security Agency.


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