In 1929, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Harry L. Stimson closed down the “Black Chamber” dedicated to intercepting international government communications with a famous quote:
“Gentlemen do not read each others mail.”
This today from an article in Tech Republic, commenting on the 12th Russian spy arrested, who worked for Microsoft:
- 1. Alexey Karetnikov, suspected of involvement in the Russian spy ring, was a Microsoft employee at the time the FBI caught up to him. The inevitable jokes about Microsoft security and the quality of MS Windows Vista have already begun to surface, such as in the comments following TechFlash article, Reports: alleged 12th Russian spy worked at Microsoft. More information is available in other articles.
- 2. The FBI ran into a hurdle it could not overcome in its investigation in the form of TrueCrypt, an (arguably) open source software disk encryption application available for MS Windows, Apple MacOS X, and Linux-based systems. Evidently, the primary technique used to try to crack it was a brute force attack on the user’s password, and the failure of the effort speaks well of the importance of strong passwords. Not only the FBI, but Brazilian counterparts as well, spent months in the attempt.
TechWorld’s article, FBI crackers fail to crack TrueCrypt, provides a decent overview of the disk encryption situation. The article might be regarded as a review and recommendation for the use of TrueCrypt for your disk encryption needs, offered by the FBI itself, even if that was not an intentional effect of the FBI’s involvement. A single case does not truly prove anything except that, in this one case, those seeking to crack TrueCrypt security failed — but it is certainly an interesting piece of information to consider when selecting disk encryption software, especially on the MS Windows platform where open source disk encryption choices are fewer and farther between than on open source OSs.
Code breaking is one of those really interesting subjects that is simply too esoteric for most people – but it is HUGELY important.
It cost us 35,000 deaths in the Korean War. We had broken the Soviet logistics code in the late 40s, s o we knew every truck and tank being moved around the Soviet Union – but the Soviets learned we had broken that code, so they changed the methodology and we went blind when the Russians were pre-positioning material to support the North Korean sneak attack on South Korea.
We had broken a FEW (fewer than 3,000 – and then only partial decryptions — out of hundreds of thousands) of communications between the Russian Embassy in Washington and Moscow during the period 1942-43. (The Venona Decryptions) Those were not decrypted until during 1948-1975, and it was laborious hand work by brilliant young mathematicians and was ended simply because most of the information was then more than 30 years old.
The hand decryptions of what is still the most secure of encryption technologies, “one-time pads,” was made possible because the Russians had a production problem and could not keep up with the demand for one-time pads when the Nazis breached the Hitler-Stalin Pact and attacked Russia. In effect, the Russians, for a brief period, reused one0-time pads and made them ‘two-time pads, seriously degrading the security.
Still, only a few messages were decrypted and only partial decryptions were possible – but those few proved the guilt of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, and the innocence of Dr. Oppenheimer.
(Of course, Dr..Oppenheimer was not charged with espionage – only right-wing groups charged him with that, and for that subsequent KGB files proved him innocent. The government took away his Top Secret Clearance for perjury – lying to a Senate Committee that he had been a member of the Communist Party. For that, subsequent KGB files showed he was guilty as charged. He did not aid the Soviets in gaining information on the Atomic Bomb when he headed the Manhattan Project, and in fact thwarted the Soviets – having had an epiphany in 1943.)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan convinced the government to release the products of the Venona Decryptions in 1995, too late to prosecute those who had committed espionage against the United States, and too late to clear the reputations of those few whose sins were less than imagined – although none were innocent, their reputations had been damaged beyond reason considering what they were actually guilty of.
Decrypting codes is a massive effort going on in top secret labs in many nations, and when they are decrypted – no one is told about it until the information is no longer valuable.
And then, for added security – they add on a few more decades.
But security is valuable for more than just governments – trade secrets are valuable commodities within industries, and between nations.
Entire industrial snooping companies exist to divine what the competition is doing, and when they are going to do it.
In fact, I once wrote a business plan to do start such a company myself.