I was part of a panel on warrantless wiretapping at last week's RSA Conference in San Francisco. The keynote session, which was moderated by the NY Times' Eric Lichtblau and which included former NSA official Bill Crowell, CDT's Jim Dempsey, attorney David Rivken, and me, focused on the role of the judiciary in national security wiretaps. Ryan Singel covered the proceedings in a brief piece on Wired's Threat Level blog.
There's a tendency to view warrantless wiretaps in strictly legal or political terms and to assume that the interception technology will correctly implement whatever the policy is supposed to be. But the reality isn't so simple. I found myself the sole techie on the RSA panel, so my role was largely to to point out that this is as much an issue of engineering as it is legal oversight. And while we don't know all the details about how NSA's wiretaps are being carried out in the US, what we do know suggests some disturbing architectural choices that make the program especially vulnerable to over-collection and abuse. In particular, assuming Mark Klein's AT&T documents are accurate, the NSA infrastructure seems much farther inside the US telecom infrastructure than would be appropriate for intercepting the exclusively international traffic that the government says it wants. The taps are apparently in domestic backbone switches rather than, say, in cable heads that leave the country, where international traffic is most concentrated (and segregated). Compounding the inherent risks of this odd design is the fact that the equipment that pans for nuggets of international communication in the stream of (off-limits) domestic traffic is apparently made up entirely of hardware provided and configured by the government, rather than the carriers. It's essentially equivalent to giving the NSA the keys to the phone company central office and hoping that they figure out which wires are the right ones to tap.
Technical details matter here. A recent paper I published with some colleagues goes into more depth about some of these issues; see a previous blog entry (linked here) about our paper.
The RSA conference itself is quite the extravaganza of commerce and technology, about as far as I care to venture from the lower-budget academic and research gatherings that comprise my natural habitat. There were something like 18,000 attendees at RSA last week, many willingly paying upwards of $2000 for the privilege. The scale is just staggeringly huge, with a level of overproduction and polish more typically associated with a Hollywood movie, or maybe a Rolling Stones concert. Some of the speakers had private dressing rooms backstage. (I didn't have one to myself, but they did lay out a nice cheese spread for us in the green room.) They made us stop at the makeup trailer before they let us on stage (I'm mildly allergic, it turns out).
If there's a silver lining under all this bling it's that digital security is unquestionably considered serious business these days. Now we just have to figure out the technical part.