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NSA Connection Creates Credibility Problems for NIST Encryption Standards

Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt hotel chain heiress and recently confirmed Secretary of Commerce, has been getting questions about national security.

Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt hotel chain heiress and recently confirmed Secretary of Commerce, has been getting questions about national security. // Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

The Department of Commerce is a big place. It's home to the National Weather Service, the U.S. Patent Office, and the Census Bureau. But following last summer's revelations about NSA surveillance of American citizens, one bureau has gotten more than its usual share of the media's attention: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which develops the encryption standards used by all public organizations and many private companies to protect their digital infrastructure.

Because of a legal requirement, NIST had help from NSA in creating these encryption recommendations, and in September, the bureau "strongly" advised that organizations stop using one part of their standard because of security concerns. While the head of NIST, Patrick Gallagher, testified that the organization is not "not deliberately, knowingly, working to undermine or weaken encryption,” outrage about NSA surveillance has put the bureau in an awkward situation: People aren't sure whether they can trust the digital security standards that NIST puts out. 

That's why Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt hotel chain heiress and recently confirmed Secretary of Commerce, has been getting questions about national security, including at The Atlantic's forum on small business on Wednesday. A big part of the president's economic agenda is helping businesses use data in smarter ways, she said, and that means they have to trust data provided by the government.

"There's a national security approach, as well as an economic approach, to the 'How do we restore trust?' question," Pritzker said. "I put the national security issue in what I call protecting the digital flexibility" of companies. 

Much of the media coverage of the NSA controversy has focused on privacy, highlighting concerns about how much access the government has to the phone calls and emails of regular citizens. But Pritzker's comments indicate another concern: If businesses in America and abroad are reluctant to rely on government tools like the NIST encryption standards, agencies like the Department of Commerce won't be able to help businesses as effectively. If the U.S. government has a credibility problem, U.S. businesses get hurt.

Pritzker said these concerns are "taken very, very, very seriously." She pointed to three separate commissions and review boards that are trying to soothe concerns about government surveillance, including two that are independent of the administration. 

"We're making sure we restore trust," she said.

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