It’s that time for the habit of the semester roundup and some thinking about what I’ve learned. But first a bit about how news stories tend to follow a path that might look like a mole’s tunnel. Not sure why. This goes to the NSA and the more recent issues with RSA, what we might call the “back door” story or the “purposeful vulnerability” story or the “How did this happen in the first place” story. Here’s what I mean about the mole’s tunnel. Tomorrow the story will turned nuanced. The stories will become the “well, it was sort of the back window not really a back door” or “vulnerability but with invulnerable characteristics just to make sure it still worked” or “well it just sorta happened by chance and we feel awful about it, and that you can believe, and this finger I’m wagging at your face proves it” stories. And so forth.
I’m reading this Guardian article at the moment titled “Security Company RSA Denies Knowingly Installing NSA ‘back door.'” And then the subtitle, which acts as a thinner mustache: “Denial follows allegations that pioneering company made NSA algorithm its default in return for payment” (italics mine). If the Guardian is accurately representing the verbs here, then I’m reminded of how I used language like this as a kid to slap accusations away. “Okay, sure I ate all the peanuts, but I didn’t know they were the last ones.” “Okay, I broke the plate, but I swear I didn’t know that I would drop it and didn’t think that the water on my hands would be so slippery.” It’s the “I didn’t know I was doing it” excuse that always works because it appeals to both an epistemological bias and a prevalent but often suppressed ability in people to trust in facts and discernible evidence. Since we really can’t know that RSA hadn’t known that they were actually doing something even though they were doing it goes to the question, “Hey, did you know you were just now talking to yourself?”
But it gets even sillier. Here’s the first paragraph of the article: “The security company RSA has denied that it knowingly weakened the encryption it used in its products as part of a secret contract with the US’s National Security Agency.” There’s little congruence between the title and this first paragraph: “knowingly installing” and knowingly weakening.” Indeed, the first paragraph is much better. It gives that nuance we all so love. Now RSA denies “it knowingly weakened the encryption …” Think about that. I’ve tried to tighten things up, tidy things, or make something thinner, but I’ve never actually verbed any of that “unknowingly.” I intended to make my bed. I’ve even tried to write some encryption myself. Consider this fiction:
He cracked his knuckles but before he could start, Larry said, “Put a J there in that as an extra expression.”
He said, “Duh, okay.”
Larry said to himself, “Ha, ha. He doesn’t know that that J will open the back door. He He.”
Not only did RSA not “knowingly weaken the encryption” but they deny doing it knowingly AND as a “secret contract” with the NSA. In the first paragraph, the “as part of a” elbow acts like a conjunction in an unwritten compound sentence. We deny “knowingly doing something” AND we deny “knowingly doing something as part of a secret contract.” As every good obfuscator knows, ANDs make for future denials. Consider this part where Charles Arthur quotes from a RSA blog post
RSA initially declined to respond to the reports. But in a blogpost on its site posted Sunday, the company now says: “Recent press coverage has asserted that RSA entered into a ‘secret contract’ with the NSA to incorporate a known flawed random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries. We categorically deny this allegation.”
In terms of the AND theory of obfuscation, this is grandiloquence. We “deny that we entered into a secret contract to incorporate a known flawed [something]” Very good writing, I would say. The reporters one flaw here is the use of the word “now says” which would imply a change of heart or alteration.
In all seriousness, knowing what people did or what they were thinking is always hard. Of course it is. I would submit that the solution is pretty simple and it goes according to the deux ex machina formulation in storytelling. Some powerful person or force, maybe the American president, tells the NSA: “That’s it, stop storing Ersinghaus’s data.” Believe me it ain’t all that interesting.