Is information security good? (by )

One of the interesting things to have come from Edward Snowden's leaks of classified documents is that the American National Security Agency has been working to introduce flaws into the design and implementation of security technologies, in order to make it easier for them to break said security for their own ends.

There's been a lot of outrage about that. The argument for it is that the ready availability of strong security technology makes it easier for bad folks to conceal their crimes (and, worse, conceal the fact that they are planning such crimes, so they cannot be stopped in advance), so the NSA is right in acting to make sure people don't have strong security technology. However, even if we can trust the NSA (and that is far from certain) such vulnerabilities can be found by people we certainly can't trust: "cyber-criminals" intent on stealing our credit card details in order to rob us of our money, commercial competitors looking for strategic advantage, and so on.

There are also deeper issues that have been raised; this means that the NSA is covertly working to sabotage the products of US companies. Should they be allowed to do that? Can those companies now sue them for damages?

But I think that, at the heart of the debate over this, is an even deeper issue.

We have the NSA - the part of the US government officially responsible for information security - acting to subvert the information security available to US individuals and companies, on the grounds that it is harmful to the public if they have strong security. While on the other hand, we have individuals and companies striving for better security; working to make more secure products, choosing products that claim to provide security benefits, and so on.

This shows, to me, that there's a big unresolved question that US society as a whole - government and non-government together - needs to ask themselves: Is information security good? The government's official position seems to be that information security is harmful, as it makes it harder to provide a more general notion of security that is threatened by criminals, foreign governments, and terrorists; while everyone else's position seems to be that information security is good because they don't want information criminals and foreign governments stealing their secrets (terrorists don't seem to have cottoned to this trick yet) - and, maybe, because they don't want the government knowing ("stealing" is a contentious term here, as the government gets to define what "stealing" is) their secrets, too.

So before they can really debate whether the NSA's actions are justified or not, I think the US needs to step back and look at the bigger question: Should information security be a right, or not? If not, then they should just use legislation to stop companies and people from wasting resources trying to achieve it while other resources are being spent subverting it so they only receive an illusion thereof. That's just plain inefficient. And if information security is deemed good, then the NSA should be prevented from subverting it, and refocus its efforts on ways of doing its job without being able to break encryption; traffic analysis, meta-data analysis, exploiting specific installations of security systems where a threat is suspected, and so on are all time-honoured mechanisms that work even against well-educated adversaries that use encryption systems that the NSA hasn't been able to subvert.

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