National Security Agency Had Access Built into Microsoft Windows –
(VISTA “Virtual Instant Surveillance Tactical Application”)
Heiss <https://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/5/5263/1.html> – A CARELESS mistake
by Microsoft programmers 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 discovery comes close on the heels of the revelations
earlier this year that another US software giant, Lotus, had built an NSA
its Notes system, and that security functions on other software systems had
been deliberately crippled.
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.
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 programmes inserted and controlled by
NSA. As yet, no-one knows what these programmes are, or what they do.
Dr Nicko van Someren reported at last year’s Crypto 98 conference that he
had disassembled the ADVADPI driver. He found it contained two different
keys. One was used by Microsoft to control the cryptographic functions
enabled in Windows, in compliance with US export regulations. But the reason
for building in a second key, or who owned it, remained a mystery.
A second key
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
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”.
Fernandes reported his re-discovery of the two CAPI keys, and their secret
meaning, to “Advances in Cryptology, Crypto’99” conference held in Santa
Barbara. According to those present at the conference, 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.
A third key?!
But according to two witnesses attending the conference, even 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”.
According to Fernandez of Cryptonym, 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.
“For non-American IT managers relying on Windows NT to operate highly secure
data centres, this find is worrying”, he added. “The US government is
currently making it as difficult as possible for “strong” crypto to be used
outside of the US. That they have also installed a cryptographic back-door
in the world’s most abundant operating system should send a strong message
to foreign IT managers”.
“How is an IT manager to feel when they learn that in every copy of Windows
sold, Microsoft has a ‘back door’ for NSA – making it orders of magnitude
easier for the US government to access your computer?” he asked.
Can the loophole be turned round against the snoopers?
Dr van Someren feels that the primary purpose of the NSA key inside Windows
may be for legitimate US government use. But he says that there cannot be a
legitimate explanation for the third key in Windows 2000 CAPI. “It looks
more fishy”, he said.
Fernandez believes that NSA’s built-in loophole can be turned round against
the snoopers. The NSA key inside CAPI can be replaced by your own key, and
used to sign cryptographic security modules from overseas or unauthorised
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
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.”
/s/ Paul Andrew Mitchell, B.A., M.S.
Private Attorney General, 18 U.S.C. 1964(a)
Criminal Investigator and Federal Witness: 18 U.S.C. 1510, 1512-13
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