Computer security specialists have been aware for two years that unusual features are contained inside a standard Windows software “driver” used for security and encryption functions. The driver, called ADVAPI.DLL, enables and controls a range of security functions. If you use Windows, you will find it in the C:Windowssystem directory of your computer.
ADVAPI.DLL works closely with Microsoft Internet Explorer, but will only run cryptographic functions that the US governments allows Microsoft to export. That information is bad enough news, from a European point of view. Now, it turns out that ADVAPI will run special programs inserted and controlled by NSA. As yet, no-one knows what these programs are, or what they do.
Recently, Microsoft programmers mistake has revealed that special access codes prepared by the US National Security Agency have been secretly built into Windows. The NSA access system is built into every version of the Windows operating system now in use, except early releases of Windows 95 (and its predecessors).
The result of having the secret key inside your Windows operating system is that it is tremendously easier for the NSA to load unauthorized security services on all copies of Microsoft Windows, and once these security services are loaded, they can effectively compromise your entire operating system. The NSA key is contained inside all versions of Windows from Windows 95 OSR2 onwards.
The first discovery of the new NSA access system was made two years ago by British researcher Dr Nicko van Someren. But it was only a few weeks ago when a second researcher rediscovered the access system. With it, he found the evidence linking it to NSA.
Two weeks ago, a US security company came up with conclusive evidence that the second key belongs to NSA. Like Dr van Someren, Andrew Fernandez, chief scientist with Cryptonym of Morrisville, North Carolina, had been probing the presence and significance of the two keys. Then he checked the latest Service Pack release for Windows NT4, Service Pack 5. He found that Microsoft’s developers had failed to remove or “strip” the debugging symbols used to test this software before they released it. Inside the code were the labels for the two keys. One was called “KEY”. The other was called “NSAKEY”.
According to those present at the conference held in Santa Barbara during this report, Windows developers attending the conference did not deny that the “NSA” key was built into their software. But they refused to talk about what the key did, or why it had been put there without users’ knowledge.
Microsoft’s top crypto programmers were astonished to learn that the version of ADVAPI.DLL shipping with Windows 2000 contains not two, but three keys. Brian LaMachia, head of CAPI development at Microsoft was “stunned” to learn of these discoveries, by outsiders. The latest discovery by Dr van Someren is based on advanced search methods which test and report on the “entropy” of programming code. Within the Microsoft organisation, access to Windows source code is said to be highly compartmentalized, making it easy for modifications to be inserted without the knowledge of even the respective product managers.
Researchers are divided about whether the NSA key could be intended to let US government users of Windows run classified cryptosystems on their machines or whether it is intended to open up anyone’s and everyone’s Windows computer to intelligence gathering techniques deployed by NSA’s burgeoning corps of “information warriors”.
The good thing is that NSA key inside CAPI can be replaced by your own key, and used to sign cryptographic security modules from overseas or unauthorized third parties, unapproved by Microsoft or the NSA. This is exactly what the US government has been trying to prevent. A demonstration “how to do it” program that replaces the NSA key can be found on Cryptonym’s website.
According to one leading US cryptographer, the IT world should be thankful that the subversion of Windows by NSA has come to light before the arrival of CPUs that handles encrypted instruction sets. These would make the type of discoveries made this month impossible. “Had the next-generation CPU’s with encrypted instruction sets already been deployed, we would have never found out about NSAKEY.”
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