Getting secrecy out of science

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is responsible for developing scientific measurements and standards for the government. Because of that immense responsibility, its recommendations are adopted across the world. This includes cutting-edge development of cryptography, otherwise known as the magic that keeps the Internet and your computer safe.

This is why it was so brutally disappointing when the Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA had subverted NIST’s rule-promulgation process, secretly weakening the math that individuals, companies and governments around the world rely on for informational security. That secrecy is unacceptable, and that squandering of NIST’s international integrity is a stunning disappointment.

It is the kind of secrecy that is anathema to Sunlight’s mission and values.

Last month, Sunlight signed onto a coalition letter arguing that NIST should avoid consultation with the National Security Agency (NSA) when developing standards and, when it must, the process should be public and transparent. Since then, Sunlight has been working with our allies to accomplish that.

Last night, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology adopted an amendment authored by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., and supported by Sunlight and some of our colleagues that limits the NSA’s influence on NIST.

Grayson’s amendment removes the requirement that NIST consult with NSA, which has been mandatory under the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act since 1987. NIST can now choose to consult with the NSA when they decide the advice will be useful, but will not be forced to do so — or feel pressure to adhere to the NSA’s demands.

This is one of the first successful legislative steps toward limiting the NSA since it came into existence. There’s far more to be done here: to ensure that when NIST does consult with the NSA, the process maintains the integrity and openness Americans deserve; and to vastly improve the oversight that has apparently failed to limit the NSA’s ambitions.

Still, this amendment is a strong rebuttal to the NSA’s abuse of its position within the political system.