Why did I get a call from the NSA in the middle of the night and asked for the source code

Original author: Peter Avritch
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The story of my top secret coffee cup

"Please listen carefully and do not hang up." These are the first words that an unknown man spoke on the phone when my brother handed me the phone.

It was a weekend on the holiday of July 4, 2000, plus or minus a day, and Mr. X knew it was necessary to begin with these words, because he called my brother's home phone in Connecticut after midnight. It was especially creepy because I lived in California, and nobody knew that I was in Connecticut, except for my close relatives, who were all there in the house with me. I arrived the day before, as I usually do during our annual family picnic on Independence Day.

Why did he call?

It was a national security issue.

The caller apologized for the late call and said that his name is Dave. He asked to take a pen and paper, because he was going to give a few important instructions that would confirm his identity. And then I was stunned by the phrase: "This is a national security issue."

Some of my relatives began to gather near the kitchen, where I was standing against the wall with a telephone. What the hell is going on? I signaled my brother to bring a pen.

I tried to make sense of what was happening. Oddly enough, did not even guess to ask Dave how he got this number. The man seemed serious and spoke in an authoritative voice; I think I already believed that he had that right.

Ok, ready to write.

Dave said he was calling from the NSA base in Bethesda. National Security Agency. He could say no more until I called back. That is why a pen was needed. He was going to give instructions from several steps how to call him back in such a way that confirms his personality and the seriousness of the situation.

Call me back

Dave said hang up, dial 411 (help) and ask the operator the main number of the naval base in Bethesda, Maryland. Then call this number, go through several other operators on the base, asking each one in turn to connect me to the next one in the chain. He dictated the exact words for each such jump, because I will ask for redirection to a protected object.

Adrenaline hit in the head and I woke up.

To calm me down, he said that he would call me back in ten minutes if there was no news from me - in case I bargained. But I managed.

A few minutes later I was on the phone again with Dave. Stunned, NSA. It actually happened.

We need your help

Dave continued. He said that they have a laptop with files that are encrypted by my SafeHouse program. They have a national security situation that requires immediate access to these files, and they need my help. Specifically, if I help them, they may get access to the files faster than without my help. Time had a significant meaning: hence the call in the middle of the night.

If the NSA does not get access to the files, there will be trouble.

SafeHouse was (and still remains) a popular Windows utility that I developed to encrypt private files, it is distributed as shareware. In the free version, encryption is specifically weakened in accordance with the requirements of the State Department for the export of weapons, as well as to push users to purchase an advanced paid version. Clients are different, from home users to large financial organizations.

If the NSA does not get access to the files, there will be trouble. Maybe people will die. At least, Dave impressed me with that impression when he politely asked if I was ready to provide the source, all the time apologizing that he couldn’t say anything more about the situation.

I mention the courtesy of Dave because she seemed unusual and especially strange - he was too pleasant. It seemed that he assumes or is ready to accept the refusal. And if someone else in his place was in a different situation, it would have happened. But here it seemed that the matter was important, and there was simply no time for discussion.

Of course, Dave immediately asked if there was a backdoor to decrypt, because it would save a lot of time. But no. SafeHouse is designed to the highest standards and best practices using strong 256-bit encryption.

Well, I am ready to provide source codes. Any, no questions asked. But there was one small problem - I don’t have them with me, because I am on vacation. So you have to call and wake Ron in Portland. I already hit one in the morning on the west coast. Ron worked as a programmer for my team, and I knew for sure that he had a copy of the source code at home.

Call Letter. Is done.

I tried to test the ground: guys, are you really able to crack 256-bit encryption? Dave was silent. The crypto community has been discussing this topic for a long time; and I thought it was worth a try. Didn't even count on the answer.

When did this guy with a laptop buy SafeHouse? What is his version? The more I know, the better I can help you.

And then Dave admitted that he had a shareware version on the laptop. Seriously? It changes everything. The shareware version only supported weak 40-bit encryption. Most hackers can hack it in a couple of days. And I think that the NSA secret coder will take much less time.

I again tested the ground: this time about their possibilities of breaking 40-bit ciphers. Perhaps such a low level is no longer a state secret. But Dave again kept silent.

Stupid criminals

But seriously, this idiot with a laptop was planning to blow up a building or something, but he didn’t have enough brains or money to buy a normal version of the program for $ 39.99 with maximum encryption?

This time Dave replied: “It's amazing, but this happens all the time. They are called stupid criminals for a reason. Incredible, but true. ”

I continued to work with Dave and his team for a day or so. He answered all their questions, but they did not answer any of mine - naturally. But they were always polite in these one-sided conversations, which inflamed insane curiosity, which, I knew, would never be satisfied.


A few days later I returned home to California, and in my office there was an unmarked box with my name. Inside, wrapped in white tissue paper, lay a blue NSA coffee cup with a handwritten note on plain white paper: “Thank you. Dave.

Later that day Dave called. He could not yet give any details, because everything was top secret, but he said that everything “worked out” and they are grateful for my help.

Once again, I tried to pull out the details and asked if it meant that it “worked” that they had broken the cipher; but of course he said nothing. Silent as usual. Probably fun with him at parties. Is Dave his real name?

When I thanked for the gift, I could not keep silent about the secret note that he put in the box. Dave just laughed and said, “These are my regular NSA forms.”

I have had this top secret cup for 18 years. It is the one that on KDPV. Every morning I drink coffee, but never from this cup. She is too special. I'm afraid to break it, so let it stand on the shelf in the living room next to other valuable souvenirs.

I have never been to the NSA, but as far as I know, they sell such cups in a souvenir shop. But for me it does not matter. This cup is a reminder of something bad that never happened, and I played a small part in it.

But one thing has been sitting in my head all these years: how the hell did Dave track me 3000 miles from home in the middle of that hot summer evening in Bristol, Connecticut?

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