Blame China for the NSA's spying campaign on us all

'@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex' explores the origins of the NSA’s war on privacy -- and Silicon Valley's complicity

In summer 2007, top executives of 20 of the largest defense contractors in the country were summoned to a meeting in a "sensitive compartmented information facility," a room built to be impervious to eavesdropping at the National Security Agency's headquarters in Maryland. What they learned was shocking.

More than 2TB of data about the workings of America's next-generation fighter aircraft, the F-35, had been stolen from company servers by hackers apparently based in China.

Three years earlier, a young Army officer named Bob Stasio was also hacking. His target: the cellphones and Web traffic of Iraqi insurgents who were building bombs and attacking American forces in Iraq. Before he was done, Stasio and his colleagues had gathered intelligence that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of enemy fighters and the capture of many more.

The two events are not unrelated. In the middle of the last decade, the United States moved aggressively to militarize and centralize its worldwide efforts to gather data from the Internet. What was once a largely defensive posture, focused on keeping hackers and spies out, became part of an offensive war-fighting strategy and eventually a global dragnet aimed, as one NSA official put it, at "collecting everything."

"The military now calls cyber space the 'fifth domain' of warfare, and it views supremacy there as essential to its mission, just as it is in the other four: land, sea, air, and space," Shane Harris writes In his just-published book, "@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex."

But that mission has gone far beyond the virtual battlefield between the United States and terrorists and other nations. It has metastasized into the unrestricted collection of all our data that Edward Snowden has revealed -- with the cooperation of Silicon Valley, as Harris reveals in "@War."

"@War" covers some of the same ground that journalist Glenn Greenwald exposed in his writings based on Snowden's leaks. Harris is unsparing in his criticism of the surveillance-happy military-Internet complex, but he is less polemical and more nuanced than the ever-furious Greenwald. Harris also makes the case that at times the national interest probably justifies using a black hat's bag of tricks.

The threat from China was the trigger

While most accounts of the Snowden leaks focus on the last two administrations' obsession with terrorism, Harris shows that fear of China's state-backed hacking apparatus motivated the government's broad spying efforts and prompted companies like Google to becoming willing partners.

China, Harris says, has penetrated U.S. military and civilian networks to a far greater extent than had been publicly revealed. The leaks that led to the loss of plans for the F-35 were not one-time events. For example, the networks of defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems had been penetrated for years.

"Chinese cyber forces, along with their counterparts in Russia, have designed technologies to hack into U.S. military aircraft," writes Harris. "The Chinese in particular have developed a method for inserting computer viruses through the air into three models of planes that the Air Force uses for reconnaissance and surveillance."

Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor on the F-35 program, was initially uncooperative with Defense Department investigators, writes Harris. "Maybe because a thorough investigation might reveal how poorly defended the company's networks were."

After a Chinese attack, Google signs on with the NSA

But Silicon Valley had few hesitations in cooperating with the NSA.

In mid-December 2009, Google engineers began to suspect that hackers in China had obtained access to private Gmail accounts, including those used by Chinese human rights activists opposed to the government in Beijing. "The thieves were able to get access to the password system that allowed Google's users to sign in to many Google applications at once. This was some of the company's most important intellectual property, considered among the crown jewels of its source code," Harris writes.

Unlike Lockheed Martin, Google moved quickly and aggressively, finding the source of the attack: a server in Taiwan likely controlled by hacker in mainland China. "Google broke in to the server," a former senior intelligence official who's familiar with the company's response told Harris.

What Google found was a massive and persistent series of attacks. "Evidence suggested that Chinese hackers had penetrated the systems of nearly three dozen other companies, including technology mainstays such as Symantec, Yahoo, and Adobe, the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and the [network] equipment maker Juniper Networks," writes Harris.

Google's retaliatory hack was merely the beginning of Google's cooperation with the emerging U.S. security state.

On the day that Google's chief counsel wrote a blog post that broke the news of the Chinese incursions, the NSA's general counsel began drafting a "cooperative research and development agreement," a legal pact originally devised under a 1980 law to speed up the commercial development of new technologies of mutual interest to companies and the government. What, if anything, Google and the NSA ultimately built isn't known.

Signing on to work with the NSA may seem at odds with Google's "Don't be evil" mantra, but Google received useful information about security in return -- and an ego boost from the NSA's campaign of flattery. For example, Google co-founder Sergey Brin was given a special temporary security clearance to attend a classified briefing at Fort Meade, the NSA's headquarters in Maryland.

Google was hardly the only Silicon Valley company to cooperate with the NSA and other policing agencies; Microsoft did too, as has Apple, most if not all networking providers, and at least some security firms.

The NSA's other mission: Weaken widely used security systems

On one hand, says Harris, the NSA's mission is to protect information and protect computer networks so that the data -- and in many cases the government secrets inside official networks -- can't be stolen. On the other hand, the NSA is a spy agency. Its job is to go out and try and break into computer systems in other countries and steal information about America's adversaries.

The second part of that mission impelled the NSA toy weaken security systems build by U.S. companies, then penetrate networks protected by them.

The NSA worked behind the scenes to weaken the development of an algorithm called a random-number generator, a key component of all encryption. "Compromising the number generator, in a way that only the NSA knew, would undermine the entire encryption standard. It gave the NSA a backdoor," writes Harris.

The algorithm became "the default option for producing random numbers" in an RSA security product called the bSafe toolkit, according to a Reuters report quoted by Harris. "No alarms were raised, former employees said, because the deal was handled by business leaders rather than pure technologists." For its compliance and willingness to adopt the flawed algorithm, RSA was paid $ 10 million, Reuters reported.

RSA denied entering into a contract with the NSA, but did not deny that a backdoor existed, writes Harris. When documents leaked by Snowden confirmed the NSA's work, RSA encouraged people to stop using the number generator -- as did NIST, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Testing. (The NSA had previously worked to weaken other vendors' encryption algorithms.)

Leaks provided by Snowden last year exposed the NSA's largely unsuccessful campaign to weaken Tor, a widely used secure Internet relay system. At the time, NSA was trying to undermine Tor, the U.S. State Department was spending millions of dollars to support Tor and encouraged its use by activists and dissidents abroad, including Syrian opponents of President Bashar Al-Assad.

"The United States now has two competing and directly opposed policies: trying to prop up Tor and at the same time tearing it down," writes Harris.

Once exposed, Silicon Valley began to publicly back away

After the Snowden leaks exposed the NSA's massive domestic and foreign intelligence gathering, companies like Google and Cisco Systems moved to distance themselves from the U.S. security apparatus. They had to: Customers, particularly in Europe and Asia, were canceling orders for U.S. products they feared were insecure.

After the Snowden revelations created a public outcry, the reaction from both businesses and individuals has put the military-Internet complex in an awkward position. Some in Silicon Valley have made it harder for the NSA to spy on people and businesses, such as Apple and Google changing their mobile encryption approaches so they can't help the feds unlock users' smartphones and tablets, or efforts to create new encryption standards outside of the NSA's influence. Yet others work closely with the NSA to safeguard their industrial secrets and those of their customers. Some companies play both sides in a battlefield without clear lines. 

"@War" is a not a fun read; the implications of what Harris, along with Greenwald and Snowden, have uncovered, are too chilling. But it's a great piece of investigative reporting and a significant addition to the still-unfinished story that began with the Snowden leaks.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.