Winner of NSA Cybersecurity Award Slams the Spy Agency's Existence


Joseph Bonneau

Dr. Joseph Bonneau (that's him pictured), who works for Google as a software engineer, won the National Security Agency's award for his cybersecurity paper, The Science of Guessing:  Analyzing an Anonymized Corpus of 70 Million Passwords. That's over my head, but the summary at the Cyber-Physical Systems Virtual Organization site says the paper "offered careful and rigorous measurements of password use in practice and theoretical contributions to how to measure and model password strength." Good for him, and he was gracious in blogging about the award, writing, "I'm honored to have been recognised by the distinguished academic panel assembled by the NSA." But then he did something you usually don't see award recipients of any sort do: he questioned the very existence of the agency honoring his efforts.

Writing at the Light Blue Touchpaper blog, Bonneau continued:

In accepting the award I don't condone the NSA's surveillance. Simply put, I don't think a free society is compatible with an organisation like the NSA in its current form.

He emphasized, though, that recent revelation about NSA surveillance of phone and Internet activity involve policy problems running up to the top, not the efforts of a rogue agency.

Yet I'm glad I got the rare opportunity to visit with the NSA and I'm grateful for my hosts' genuine hospitality. A large group of engineers turned up to hear my presentation, asked sharp questions, understood and cared about the privacy implications of studying password data. It affirmed my feeling that America's core problems are in Washington and not in Fort Meade.

That may sound like a kindness to his benefactors, but it's absolutely true. The NSA didn't set to work spying on America and the world beyond of its own accord. It was set to that task by presidents and legislators who've lost respect for limitations on their power and for the liberty of the people who suffer under their governance. To dismantle or defund the NSA, in and of itself, without cleaning house of policymakers and further constraining their power would accomplish nothing, since they'd have a new spy agency in place in no time.

But, as Bonneau emphasized on Twitter, he does want the NSA abolished.