Lawmakers press NSA for answers about 2015 Juniper hack

A group of Democratic lawmakers is calling on the NSA to explain its part in developing a flawed encryption algorithm that was used and subsequently exploited through Juniper Network's security products, citing the supply chain hack involving SolarWinds Orion.

A group of Democratic lawmakers is calling on the National Security Agency to account for its part in the five-year-old breach of Juniper Networks, following a congressional investigation of the company last year.

"The American people have a right to know why NSA did not act after the Juniper hack to protect the government from the serious threat posed by supply chain hacks. A similar supply chain hack was used in the recent SolarWinds breach, in which several government agencies were compromised with malware snuck into the company's software updates," the lawmakers wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to NSA chief Gen. Paul Nakasone.

The story of Juniper Networks' hack dates back several years. In 2015, the company announced it systems had been breached by hackers who modified code for an encryption algorithm, called Dual_EC_DRGB. The algorithm was made by the NSA and given to the National Institute of Standards and Technology years earlier. Experts outside of government warned that Dual_EC_DRGB contained a backdoor vulnerability, but their warnings were ultimately ignored.

"In essence, the hackers changed the key to the pre-existing backdoor that experts had long warned about in the algorithm -- the backdoor remained, but now under the control of the unknown hackers," lawmakers wrote.

Lawmakers last year sent a letter to Juniper CEO Rami Rahim seeking answers about the hack. The new letter says Juniper confirmed it added support for the algorithm at the "request of a customer" but refused to identify that customer or confirm if it was a government agency.

Juniper also "confirmed that the change to the code made by the hackers in 2012 could be exploited to decrypt customer data. This means that for approximately three years, a sophisticated adversary, possibly a foreign government, likely controlled a backdoor in Juniper's products which could be used to decrypt communications to or from the many U.S. business and government agencies that were using Juniper's products," according to the letter.

The lawmakers want the NSA to provide a previously undisclosed report about "lessons learned" from the Juniper hack, detail what actions NSA took afterwards and acknowledge whether the agency knew about the backdoor when NIST certified the encryption algorithm.

"What statutory legal authority, if any, would permit NSA to introduce vulnerabilities into U.S. government approved algorithms certified by NIST and to keep those vulnerabilities hidden from NIST?" the letter asks.

The letter is signed by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

The lawmakers gave NSA until Feb. 26 to respond.

This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site.