Computer security specialists have been aware for two years that unusual features are contained inside a standard Windows software "driver" used for security and encryption functions. The driver, called ADVAPI.DLL, enables and controls a range of security functions. If you use Windows, you will find it in the C:\Windows\system directory of your computer. ADVAPI.DLL works closely with Microsoft Internet Explorer, but will only run crypographic functions that the US governments allows Microsoft to export. That information is bad enough news, from a European point of view.
Two weeks ago, a US security company came up with conclusive evidence that the second key belongs to NSA. Andrew Fernandez, chief scientist with Cryptonym of Morrisville, North Carolina, had been probing the presence and significance of the two keys. Then he checked the latest Service Pack release for Windows NT4, Service Pack 5. He found that Microsoft's developers had failed to remove or "strip" the debugging symbols used to test this software before they released it. Inside the code were the labels for the two keys. One was called "KEY". The other was called "NSAKEY".
But according to two witnesses attending the conference, even Microsoft's top crypto programmers were astonished to learn that the version of ADVAPI.DLL shipping with Windows 2000 contains not two, but three keys. Brian LaMachia, head of CAPI development at Microsoft was "stunned" to learn of these discoveries, by outsiders.
According to Fernandez of Cryptonym, the result of having the secret key inside your Windows operating system "is that it is tremendously easier for the NSA to load unauthorized security services on all copies of Microsoft Windows, and once these security services are loaded, they can effectively compromise your entire operating system". The NSA key is contained inside all versions of Windows from Windows 95 OSR2 onwards.
"For non-American IT managers relying on Windows NT to operate highly secure data centres, this find is worrying", he added. "The US government is currently making it as difficult as possible for "strong" crypto to be used outside of the US. That they have also installed a cryptographic back-door in the world's most abundant operating system should send a strong message to foreign IT managers".
"How is an IT manager to feel when they learn that in every copy of Windows sold, Microsoft has a 'back door' for NSA - making it orders of magnitude easier for the US government to access your computer?" he asked.
The question is, who is silly enough to deal with national-security level sensitive information using a Windows OS? Even without a NSA backdoor key in it, all of Microsoft's OSes (with the possible exception of Vista, for which it's too early to say) are far too insecure to handle even moderately sensitive information.