Writing in the Atlantic, Bruce Schneier explains the NSA's insane program of creating, discovering and hoarding vulnerabilities in computer systems in order to weaponize them. These vulnerabilities allow the NSA to attack its enemies (everyone), but let other states, hackers, and crooks attack Americans. The NSA claims it is "securing" cyberspace, but its dominant tactic requires that everyone be made less secure so that the NSA can attack them if they feel the need.
The NSA can play either defense or offense. It can either alert the vendor and get a still-secret vulnerability fixed, or it can hold on to it and use it as to eavesdrop on foreign computer systems. Both are important U.S. policy goals, but the NSA has to choose which one to pursue. By fixing the vulnerability, it strengthens the security of the Internet against all attackers: other countries, criminals, hackers. By leaving the vulnerability open, it is better able to attack others on the Internet. But each use runs the risk of the target government learning of, and using for itself, the vulnerability—or of the vulnerability becoming public and criminals starting to use it.
There is no way to simultaneously defend U.S. networks while leaving foreign networks open to attack. Everyone uses the same software, so fixing us means fixing them, and leaving them vulnerable means leaving us vulnerable. As Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith wrote, “every offensive weapon is a (potential) chink in our defense—and vice versa.”
To make matters even more difficult, there is an arms race going on in cyberspace. The Chinese, the Russians, and many other countries are finding vulnerabilities as well. If we leave a vulnerability unpatched, we run the risk of another country independently discovering it and using it in a cyber-weapon that we will be vulnerable to. But if we patch all the vulnerabilities we find, we won’t have any cyber-weapons to use against other countries.
Should U.S. Hackers Fix Cybersecurity Holes or Exploit Them? [Bruce Schneier/The Atlantic]