Can the NSA Break AES?
In an excellent article in Wired, James Bamford talks about the NSA’s codebreaking capability.
According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”
Bamford has been writing about the NSA for decades, and people tell him all sorts of confidential things. Reading the above, the obvious question to ask is: can the NSA break AES?
My guess is that they can’t. That is, they don’t have a cryptanalytic attack against the AES algorithm that allows them to recover a key from known or chosen ciphertext with a reasonable time and memory complexity. I believe that what the “top official” was referring to is attacks that focus on the implementation and bypass the encryption algorithm: side-channel attacks, attacks against the key generation systems (either exploiting bad random number generators or sloppy password creation habits), attacks that target the endpoints of the communication system and not the wire, attacks that exploit key leakage, attacks against buggy implementations of the algorithm, and so on. These attacks are likely to be much more effective against computer encryption.
EDITED TO ADD (3/22): Another option is that the NSA has built dedicated hardware capable of factoring 1024-bit numbers. There’s quite a lot of RSA-1024 out there, so that would be a fruitful project. So, maybe.
EDITED TO ADD (4/13): The NSA denies everything.