What can we learn from 50 years of selling backdoors?

A new report from The Washington Post claims that the CIA secretly owned an encryption firm between 1970 and 2018, and used the company to put backdoors in other nation's equipment. As concern around modern encryption grows ever louder, it's a reminder that this is well-trod territory.

  • A Swiss company, Crypto AG, sold encryption equipment to over 120 countries, including Iran, India, and Japan. That equipment was, according to the Post, "rigged" so the CIA and West German intelligence agencies could intercept supposedly encrypted communications.
  • Other companies were allegedly involved, too. Siemens reportedly took 5% of Crypto AG's sales in exchange for advising the company, while Motorola is said to have helped fix some of its products. Motorola's CEO, the Post says, was aware of the company's link to the CIA.
  • The newspaper also claims that the CIA owned at least one other security firm, though it doesn't have more specific details about it.
  • The investigation serves to demonstrate that modern concerns about encryption — whether it's WhatsApp vulnerabilities that were allegedly used to hack Jeff Bezos' iPhone, fears about China spying via Huawei's 5G equipment, or the Trump administration's demands for Apple to build backdoors — are based on justified concerns about how government agencies operate.
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