For a while now, I’ve pointed out that cryptography is singularly ill-suited to solve the major network security problems of today: denial-of-service attacks, website defacement, theft of credit card numbers, identity theft, viruses and worms, DNS attacks, network penetration, and so on.
Cryptography was invented to protect communications: data in motion. This is how cryptography was used throughout most of history, and this is how the militaries of the world developed the science. Alice was the sender, Bob the receiver, and Eve the eavesdropper. Even when cryptography was used to protect stored data—data at rest—it was viewed as a form of communication. In “Applied Cryptography,” I described encrypting stored data in this way: “a stored message is a way for someone to communicate with himself through time.” Data storage was just a subset of data communication.
In modern networks, the difference is much more profound. Communications are immediate and instantaneous. Encryption keys can be ephemeral, and systems like the STU-III telephone can be designed such that encryption keys are created at the beginning of a call and destroyed as soon as the call is completed. Data storage, on the other hand, occurs over time. Any encryption keys must exist as long as the encrypted data exists. And storing those keys becomes as important as storing the unencrypted data was. In a way, encryption doesn’t reduce the number of secrets that must be stored securely; it just makes them much smaller.
Historically, the reason key management worked for stored data was that the key could be stored in a secure location: the human brain. People would remember keys and, barring physical and emotional attacks on the people themselves, would not divulge them. In a sense, the keys were stored in a “computer” that was not attached to any network. And there they were safe.
This whole model falls apart on the Internet. Much of the data stored on the Internet is only peripherally intended for use by people; it’s primarily intended for use by other computers. And therein lies the problem. Keys can no longer be stored in people’s brains. They need to be stored on the same computer, or at least the network, that the data resides on. And that is much riskier.
Let’s take a concrete example: credit card databases associated with websites. Those databases are not encrypted because it doesn’t make any sense. The whole point of storing credit card numbers on a website is so it’s accessible—so each time I buy something, I don’t have to type it in again. The website needs to dynamically query the database and retrieve the numbers, millions of times a day. If the database were encrypted, the website would need the key. But if the key were on the same network as the data, what would be the point of encrypting it? Access to the website equals access to the database in either case. Security is achieved by good access control on the website and database, not by encrypting the data.
The same reasoning holds true elsewhere on the Internet as well. Much of the Internet’s infrastructure happens automatically, without human intervention. This means that any encryption keys need to reside in software on the network, making them vulnerable to attack. In many cases, the databases are queried so often that they are simply left in plaintext, because doing otherwise would cause significant performance degradation. Real security in these contexts comes from traditional computer security techniques, not from cryptography.
Cryptography has inherent mathematical properties that greatly favor the defender. Adding a single bit to the length of a key adds only a slight amount of work for the defender, but doubles the amount of work the attacker has to do. Doubling the key length doubles the amount of work the defender has to do (if that—I’m being approximate here), but increases the attacker’s workload exponentially. For many years, we have exploited that mathematical imbalance.
Computer security is much more balanced. There’ll be a new attack, and a new defense, and a new attack, and a new defense. It’s an arms race between attacker and defender. And it’s a very fast arms race. New vulnerabilities are discovered all the time. The balance can tip from defender to attacker overnight, and back again the night after. Computer security defenses are inherently very fragile.
Unfortunately, this is the model we’re stuck with. No matter how good the cryptography is, there is some other way to break into the system. Recall how the FBI read the PGP-encrypted email of a suspected Mafia boss several years ago. They didn’t try to break PGP; they simply installed a keyboard sniffer on the target’s computer. Notice that SSL- and TLS-encrypted web communications are increasingly irrelevant in protecting credit card numbers; criminals prefer to steal them by the hundreds of thousands from back-end databases.
On the Internet, communications security is much less important than the security of the endpoints. And increasingly, we can’t rely on cryptography to solve our security problems.
This essay originally appeared on DarkReading. I wrote it in 2006, but lost it on my computer for four years. I hate it when that happens.
EDITED TO ADD (7/14): As several readers pointed out, I overstated my case when I said that encrypting credit card databases, or any database in constant use, is useless. In fact, there is value in encrypting those databases, especially if the encryption appliance is separate from the database server. In this case, the attacker has to steal both the encryption key and the database. That’s a harder hacking problem, and this is why credit-card database encryption is mandated within the PCI security standard. Given how good encryption performance is these days, it’s a smart idea. But while encryption makes it harder to steal the data, it is only harder in a computer-security sense and not in a cryptography sense.