Letter to my representative on the NSA

Below is a letter to my representative in the US House of Representatives that I wrote in response to the most recent revelations on the NSA’s abuses and over-reach as documented here in the New York Times. I sent this letter via snail mail, but I wanted to put it on the web as well to galvanize others. I’ve pasted it in it’s entirety below. 

Representative Wenstrup,

I am writing with deep concern about the recent revelations regarding the NSA’s unconstitutional over-reach and abuses. The stories from the past few months about vast surveillance programs, and over-broad collection of American citizen’s communications have left me very unsettled and distrustful of the American government. However, those feelings pale in comparison to my shock, disbelief and anger at the latest revelations about the NSA’s top secret “Bullrun” and “Signit” programs.

As detailed in the a September 5th article in the New York Times (N.S.A. Foils Much Internet Encryption) these programs consist of some of the following actions

  • Inserting vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems
  • Developing techniques to defeat key encryption schemes such as HTTPS, SSL,VPN
  • Stealing encryption keys from major Internet companies

These actions are significantly more dangerous than the over-broad surveillance we’ve already been debating. The problem is that they significantly weaken the cryptographic infrastructure upon which our entire digital economy is built. By intentionally introducing backdoors in key cryptographic technologies, the NSA exposes our entire communications and networking systems to malicious hacking by criminal and foreign elements.

As a professional computer engineer, I am keenly aware of how important this cryptographic infrastructure is to our daily lives. By working to weaken this infrastructure the NSA is placing the digital transactions of millions of ordinary Americans at risk. eCommerce, online banking, electronic medical records, and numerous other aspects of our digital lives are completely reliant on strong cryptographic technology. I understand the NSA’s concern about losing out on valuable intelligence because of encryption, but the trade-offs and risks involved in actively working to undermine the very foundations of the Internet are far to high.

These risks are not purely theoretical either. For a clear example of how deliberately created back doors can be exploited by criminal elements, take a look at the 2005 “Athens Affair.” In this epic security fiasco, hackers infiltrated the infrastructure of the Greek arm of the telecom provider Vodafone. For almost half a year they bugged the phones of over 100 key players in the Greek political scene, including the prime minister, the mayor of Athens, and an employee of the US embassy. They were able to do this by hooking into the same back door used by law enforcement for legal wiretaps. To this day the perpetrators haven’t been caught, and the full extent of their surveillance is not known.

The NSA’s programs create the risk that the US will one day be embroiled in an “Athens Affair” of it’s own unless the agency is curtailed and it’s abuses reigned in. I’ve read your own opinions on the prior revelations about the NSA’s over-reach and I too recognize that it is important that our intelligence agencies have adequate information to keep American’s safe, while at the same time respecting our right to privacy and liberty. I appreciate that you’ve supported an amendment clarifying that NSA funds should not be used to target or store the communications of US citizens.

However in light of the most recent revelations I do not think that this is enough. I want you to know that during the 2014 elections I will not vote for any candidate that does not do the following

  • Condemn the NSA’s attempts to deliberately weaken the cryptographic infrastructure our digital lives rely on.
  • Call for a thorough, detailed, and above all transparent review of the NSA’s intelligence programs, particularly those centered on interfering with cryptographic technology
  • Call for legislation preventing the NSA from working with manufacturers and software companies to introduce non-targeted vulnerabilities into commercial hardware and software
  • Call for the dismissal of the Director of the NSA, Keith B. Alexander and other key NSA officials involved in the decision to focus so much of the agency’s resources on a quest to undermine basic encryption and place all Americans at risk.

I appreciate your consideration on this important issue and hope that you will make choices that will allow me to vote for you in next year’s elections.

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