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Cryptography experts pen open letter against NSA surveillance

Cryptography experts pen open letter against NSA surveillance

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The pressure on the US government to reform the NSA’s surveillance programs is growing. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all called for change last month alongside a petition from international authors calling for an end to mass surveillance. President Obama announced big changes to government surveillance programs, but most of them centered around the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, not its spying on internet communications. In an open letter published on Friday, more than 50 cryptography experts are asking the US government to make more changes to protect privacy.

"The value of society-wide surveillance in preventing terrorism is unclear, but the threat that such surveillance poses to privacy, democracy, and the US technology sector is readily apparent," the authors of the open letter state. "Because transparency and public consent are at the core of our democracy, we call upon the US government to subject all mass-surveillance activities to public scrutiny and to resist the deployment of mass-surveillance programs in advance of sound technical and social controls."

More pressure on president Obama to make additional changes

Although the letter doesn’t mention Obama, it’s clear the president’s recent speech has not eased concerns from cryptographers over the weakening of encryption standards. An independent review panel has recommended that the NSA be separated from NIST’s cryptography approval process, and that the NSA should not hold encrypted communication as a way to avoid retention limits. The signatories back the five principles put forth by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others last month, noting they "provide a good starting point."

Dr. Ronald Rivest is one of the key signatories on the list of more than 50 cryptographers, alongside MIT professor Hal Abelson, a founding director of the Free Software Foundation. Rivest, also a MIT professor, is one of the inventors of the RSA algorithm and founders of RSA Security. The RSA security firm was forced to deny last month that it entered into a contract it knew would provide the NSA a backdoor into one of its security systems. The controversy sparked concerns around the NSA's involvement with the NIST cryptography approval process.

Other signatories include former federal employees, and The Washington Post notes that some have received funding from defense agencies for research. "The choice is not whether to allow the NSA to spy," the authors of the open letter explain. "The choice is between a communications infrastructure that is vulnerable to attack at its core and one that, by default, is intrinsically secure for its users."