At a New America Foundation conference on cybersecurity Monday, NSA Director Mike Rogers gave an interview that—despite his best efforts to deal exclusively in uninformative platitudes—did produce a few lively moments. The most interesting of these came when techies in the audience—security guru Bruce Schneier and Yahoo’s chief information security officer Alex Stamos—challenged Rogers’ endorsement of a “legal framework” for requiring device manufacturers and telecommunications service providers to give the government backdoor access to their users’ encrypted communications. (Rogers repeatedly objected to the term “backdoor” on the grounds that it “sounds shady”—but that is quite clearly the correct technical term for what he’s seeking.) Rogers’ exchange with Stamos, transcribed by John Reed of Just Security, is particularly illuminating:
Alex Stamos (AS): “Thank you, Admiral. My name is Alex Stamos, I’m the CISO for Yahoo!. … So it sounds like you agree with Director Comey that we should be building defects into the encryption in our products so that the US government can decrypt…
Mike Rogers (MR): That would be your characterization. [laughing]
AS: No, I think Bruce Schneier and Ed Felton and all of the best public cryptographers in the world would agree that you can’t really build backdoors in crypto. That it’s like drilling a hole in the windshield.
MR: I’ve got a lot of world-class cryptographers at the National Security Agency.
AS: I’ve talked to some of those folks and some of them agree too, but…
MR: Oh, we agree that we don’t accept each others’ premise. [laughing]
AS: We’ll agree to disagree on that. So, if we’re going to build defects/backdoors or golden master keys for the US government, do you believe we should do so — we have about 1.3 billion users around the world — should we do for the Chinese government, the Russian government, the Saudi Arabian government, the Israeli government, the French government? Which of those countries should we give backdoors to?
MR: So, I’m not gonna… I mean, the way you framed the question isn’t designed to elicit a response.
AS: Well, do you believe we should build backdoors for other countries?
MR: My position is — hey look, I think that we’re lying that this isn’t technically feasible. Now, it needs to be done within a framework. I’m the first to acknowledge that. You don’t want the FBI and you don’t want the NSA unilaterally deciding, so, what are we going to access and what are we not going to access? That shouldn’t be for us. I just believe that this is achievable. We’ll have to work our way through it. And I’m the first to acknowledge there are international implications. I think we can work our way through this.
AS: So you do believe then, that we should build those for other countries if they pass laws?
MR: I think we can work our way through this.
AS: I’m sure the Chinese and Russians are going to have the same opinion.
MR: I said I think we can work through this.
I’ve written previously about why backdoor mandates are a horrible, horrible idea—and Stamos hits on some of the reasons I’ve pointed to in his question. What’s most obviously disturbing here is that the head of the NSA didn’t even seem to have a bad response prepared to such an obvious objection—he has no serious response at all. China and Russia may not be able to force American firms like Google and Apple to redesign their products to be more spy-friendly, but if the American government does their dirty work for them with some form of legal backdoor mandate, those firms will be hard pressed to resist demands from repressive regimes to hand over the keys. Rogers’ unreflective response seems like a symptom of what a senior intelligence official once described to me as the “tyranny of the inbox”: A mindset so myopically focused on solving one’s own immediate practical problems that the bigger picture—the dangerous long-term consequences of the easiest or most obvious quick fix solution—are barely considered.