What goes around comes around: Is the Juniper backdoor the feds’ fault?

By now, everyone should know that Dual EC DRBG is unsafe. Way back in 2013, it was revealed that it has many weaknesses, some of which were traced back to the NSA (with the help of Edward Snowden’s leaks). Whether or not it really was inserted by the NSA, the backdoor has been proven to exist and is easily exploitable.

For those of you who don’t know, a DRBG, or “deterministic random bit generator,” is essentially just a way for computers to generate random numbers. We need random numbers for cryptography — they form the basis of our secret keys. If a random number generator is compromised, then the keys it produces are unsafe to use.

Earlier this week it was announced that Juniper Networks, a major vendor for network hardware, had found a massive backdoor in its own VPN appliances. The US government is pretty worried about this, since apparently they use a lot of Juniper hardware. They’re suspecting foreign governments; they think the backdoor was inserted by state sponsored hackers from China or Russia.

However, some researchers are looking back toward Dual EC. They think foreign governments are really just a scapegoat, and that the backdoor is the federal government’s own fault. There is documentation proving that Juniper still uses Dual EC in some of its products. If the Dual EC backdoor turns out to be the source of the vulnerability in Juniper’s VPNs, then this is certainly an ironic turn of events for the NSA.

Before I conclude, let me take a moment to answer the question posed in the title of this post: Is the backdoor the feds’ fault? Eh, probably not this time. But it is certainly possible. The NSA is known to have ways to backdoor hardware. And unfortunately, no backdoor is safe. Eventually, someone other than the intended user is going to find out how to get in. And what happens then?

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Travis Mick

Travis is the chief architect of systems and software at Zeall.us. A background in network security research has fostered in him a passion for values such as digital privacy, net neutrality, and intellectual freedom. In a world where these causes are increasingly important, he aims to both raise awareness of them and further their goals through technology.

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