U.S. State Department promotes grants to help thwart the NSA

By David Sirota , written on June 9, 2014

From The News Desk

Over the past year, the United States government has been in the news a lot for its efforts to undermine the Internet’s basic privacy and security protocols.

There were the Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency sweeping up metadata; paying contractors to embed backdoors into their security technologies; hacking various private accounts of network system administrators; and developing malware to infect computers.

There was the Washington Post story about the government’s “collect it all” ideology.

There was the CNET story detailing the governments efforts “”to obtain the master encryption keys that Internet companies use to shield millions of users' private Web communications from eavesdropping.”

And there was the ProPublica story detailing how “The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications.”

So with all that in mind, it seems more than a bit hilarious that the U.S. government has just posted its latest annual announcement about “funding for programs that support Internet freedom.” In the announcement late last week, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Internet Freedom says it is looking to support “technologies that enhance the privacy and security of digital communications” and that are “less susceptible to intrusion or infection.”

Yes, you read that right: the same U.S. government that has been one of the most powerful forces undermining Internet security is now touting itself as a proponent of internet privacy and security.

Of course, when you are done having a good laugh about this, remember that there may also be other, less funny subtexts to this story.

A cynic, for instance, could look at this and believe the U.S. State Department is using such announcements to conduct diplomatic damage control in the wake of the NSA-related revelations. That's not a crazy theory - after all, in the last year, those revelations have strained critical U.S. relations with countries like Brazil, China and Germany. Unlike the NSA, the State Department’s whole job is to manage those relationships - and so promoting grants like this can look like an attempt by State to manufacture better pro-democratic optics in an attempt to clean up the diplomatic mess created by the U.S. security state.

Then again, it is quite possible this is not only about optics, but is also a glimpse of a genuine and long-simmering conflict inside the U.S. government - a conflict between the security apparatus and the diplomatic corps.

Recall that in late 2013 the Washington Post reported that the NSA has been frustrated in by its inability to fully infiltrate the Tor network. According to the Post, "The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory first developed Tor more than a decade ago as a tool to allow anonymous communications and Web browsing." According to the Tor Project’s website, the U.S. State Department remains an "active sponsor" of the network.

That detail is a reminder that while last week's funding announcement can seem absurd after the Snowden revelations, the State Department has actually been sponsoring and promoting internet freedom initiatives for many years.

Foreign Policy magazine contextualizes that record in light of the national security agencies also ramping up their own surveillance work at the very same time. In its article titled "Not Even the NSA Can Crack the State Dept's Favorite Anonymous Network," the magazine notes:

We see the NSA, an agency of the Defense Department, taking actions that are directly at odds with those of the State Department, which for the past few years has spent millions of dollars to develop Tor and other technologies and then distribute them overseas to political dissidents and democracy activists.

The NSA's anti-anonymization campaign, detailed in the Guardian, underscores a fundamental conflict at the heart of U.S. government policy toward the Internet. The NSA sees Tor as a tool for terrorists and spies. The State Department sees it as a platform for activists trying to evade the very kinds of surveillance systems that the NSA has built. In other words, the U.S. government may essentially be at war with itself. In this part of that war, a bureau in the U.S. State Department seems to be trying to help people thwart the NSA.

Now sure, resource-wise, State's internet freedom initiatives may represent a tiny effort in contrast to the NSA's multibillion-dollar operations. And yeah, the initiative may, in part, be a diplomatic ploy. But it is clearly something the NSA isn't all that thrilled about - and it isn't thrilled about it because the initiative has actually helped create a secure conduit for online communications.