Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Liveblogging NSA Director Alexander's Black Hat keynote address

Gen. Alexander is kicking off the Black Hat security conference, and so I'm going to live blog it.  The talk begins at 0900 PDT (20 minutes as I write).  I don't expect that his reception will be as ugly as if he addressed the DEFCON hacker convention at the end of the week.  Black Hat is pretty corporate and buttoned-down, and so the crowd likely won't shout the General down like DEFCON probably would.

And interesting thing happened as I sat waiting for the doors to open.  An AP reporter came up and interviewed me.  I gave his a bunch of sound bites that I expect will make it into his story.  I also pointed him to this post about how what the NSA is doing is perhaps futile as far as catching terrorists who have a clue.  We'll see what comes out of all this.  I was pretty candid with him, and said what I've been saying to all y'all here.

Check back if you want to follow the live blog thing.

0855 - There's a moment of silence to honor Barnaby Jack, who died far too young.

0900 - Gen. Alexander is here.  Applause is polite.  The introduction made parallels to the "crypto wars" of the '90s, and how uneasy everyone was then.

0905 - He says he will try to lay out the facts. Focus is finding the terrorists who live among us.

0908 - He's covering background on the authorizing laws and FISA.  He claims that the oversight that is occurring is missing from much of the public discussion.

0910 - He covered the history of terror attacks in the '90s and '00s.  Th 9/11 commission said that the Intelligence community failed to connect the dots.  His slide had the words "Never Again".  Probably a good statement of NSA's motivation.

0912 - Over 6000 NSA personnel have been to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade.  I hadn't known that, but am not surprised.

0914 - I have to say that the General comes across as being very earnest.  The audience is listening respectfully (as I suspect the DEFCON crowd would not).

0916 - He claims that they "don't collect everything".  The more data you collect, the harder it is to analyze.

0918 - Lots about oversight by the Courts and Congress.  "Anyone who's been up against a Federal Judge knows that these are people with tremendous legal experience."  His argument boils down to "trust the judges" and "they're not a rubber stamp".  Nothing on the secret proceedings aspects.

0920 - He has a slide with some very explicit claims: NSA does not collect content of phone calls or SMS.  No Names, addresses, or credit card numbers of subscribers.  In other words, just what the telephone companies collect in the Call Detail Records.

0922 - The database that can be queried by NSA analysts is "in a lockbox".  No information if this is the same lockbox that Al Gore said Social Security was in.

0925 - He gave a story about how NSA information given to the FBI let the FBI get a warrant to investigate (probably cause).  I think he's trying to be reassuring, but this didn't reassure me.  At all.

0928 - He says that the system has 100% auditability.  He doesn't talk about how audit is a function separate from operations (for good reason).  Who audits? The "Directorate of Compliance".  Overseen by DNI, DoD, Congress Intelligence Committees.  He doesn't mention that Congress has been complaining that they don't get information from NSA.  Maybe this is new.

0929 - "I know that some of you listening don't believe this."  Well, I'm not sure that I do.  He said that Congress did a 4 year study or something.

0930 - He talks a lot about internal NSA training and individual auditing.  The big concern isn't rogue NSA employees, but a directed program from NSA management.  He isn't addressing this at all.

0932 - "If we make a mistake, we'll hold ourselves accountable and report it."  Uh huh.

0933 - He uses the example of the New York City Times Square bomber.  I thought that the Brits gave us the info on this guy.

0936 - Claims PRISM "helped us understand and disrupt 54 terror-related activities".  That's a lot of disclaimers packed into that one sentence.

0938 - The first heckler: "Bullshit!"  And the second: "You lied to Congress".  He says he didn't.  The first heckler said "I don't trust you".  It doesn't look like the hecklers are being asked to leave.

0940 - "What you're asking us to do is defend the Country".

0941 - Q&A time.  The questions aren't live, but pre-collected by Black Hat.

0943 - A heckler asks a question anyway: Why are they trying to attack us?  Gen. Alexander says because they want to form a caliphate.  The heckler replies "they're attacking us because we're bombing them".  Applause.

0944 - First official question: Is this program causing a problem for the American High Tech sector in overseas markets?  Answer talks to American oversight, not on non-American's suspicion,  This was a complete dodge.

0947 - Some applause when he said "What if some of these attacks had succeeded?"

0949 - Question: Have the media leaks effected the NSA?  He talks about the morale problem at Ft. Meade.  Applause when he said that every time anyone's checked, they haven't done anything wrong.

0950 - Talking about technical controls, he points out that he can't intercept his daughter's email.  People laugh, but it's the same auditability problem.

0952 - Appeal to the audience to help solve the problem.  He says this is why he came - to get help.  A heckler says "Read the Constitution!"  He replies "You should too!" Big laugh line.

0954 - That's it.  Warm applause.  He seemed earnest in his delivery, calm when heckled.  I'm not sure I'm convinced that there is real oversight, but that's me.


Alan said...

"never again" is a stupid reason for a police state.

Matt W said...

And oversight by the Courts and Congress doesn't provide me any comfort at all. I'm guessing there aren't too many judges, congress critters, or staff that understand the technical aspects of the NSA surveillance enough to truly provide oversight.

Anonymous said...

When the FISA courts turn down more than (maybe) 1% of requests, then I'll believe they're not a rubber stamp.

Good point on who does the auditing. If the auditor is under the perview of DNI, then there's probably a conflict of interest. Good point about congressional oversight. It's hard to trust oversight when Congress complains about lack of cooperation.

Thank you for sitting through one of Alexander's harangues. I've sat through too many of my own to be able to do it now. The man could spend 30 minutes describing the brownian motion of dust motes in a sunbeam.

Alan said...

"If we make a mistake, we'll hold ourselves accountable and report it."

LOL!!!! I didn't realize he was such a comedian.

Spike said...

Ask what XKeyscore is, and how powerful it is.

Alan said...

Oh yeah, that Constitution. Hilarious.

cryptical said...

0943 - A heckler asks a question anyway: Why are they trying to attack us? Gen. Alexander says because they want to form a caliphate.

So there's the one nugget of truth out of the whole thing...

Dave H said...

"The more data you collect, the harder it is to analyze."

This is true, but unlike content, Call Detail Records are -very- amenable to computerized analysis. (Which the NSA is -very- good at, I'm told.) It's how you get your monthly phone bill, after all.

But automated analysis has its problems. Computers can't necessarily tell the difference between a terrorist making weekly email reports amid a flurry of chaff and some poor schmuck whose home PC is infected with botnet code. So if the computer says, "this guy's traffic patterns looks suspicious," does a human analyst review the records or does a printer at the FISA court just spit out a warrant for the judge to sign?