Subverting Backdoored Encryption
This is a really interesting research result. This paper proves that two parties can create a secure communications channel using a communications system with a backdoor. It’s a theoretical result, so it doesn’t talk about how easy that channel is to create. And the assumptions on the adversary are pretty reasonable: that each party can create his own randomness, and that the government isn’t literally eavesdropping on every single part of the network at all times.
This result reminds me a lot of the work about subliminal channels from the 1980s and 1990s, and the notions of how to build an anonymous communications system on top of an identified system. Basically, it’s always possible to overlay a system around and outside any closed system.
“How to Subvert Backdoored Encryption: Security Against Adversaries that Decrypt All Ciphertexts,” by Thibaut Horel and Sunoo Park and Silas Richelson and Vinod Vaikuntanathan.
Abstract: In this work, we examine the feasibility of secure and undetectable point-to-point communication in a world where governments can read all the encrypted communications of their citizens. We consider a world where the only permitted method of communication is via a government-mandated encryption scheme, instantiated with government-mandated keys. Parties cannot simply encrypt ciphertexts of some other encryption scheme, because citizens caught trying to communicate outside the government’s knowledge (e.g., by encrypting strings which do not appear to be natural language plaintexts) will be arrested. The one guarantee we suppose is that the government mandates an encryption scheme which is semantically secure against outsiders: a perhaps reasonable supposition when a government might consider it advantageous to secure its people’s communication against foreign entities. But then, what good is semantic security against an adversary that holds all the keys and has the power to decrypt?
We show that even in the pessimistic scenario described, citizens can communicate securely and undetectably. In our terminology, this translates to a positive statement: all semantically secure encryption schemes support subliminal communication. Informally, this means that there is a two-party protocol between Alice and Bob where the parties exchange ciphertexts of what appears to be a normal conversation even to someone who knows the secret keys and thus can read the corresponding plaintexts. And yet, at the end of the protocol, Alice will have transmitted her secret message to Bob. Our security definition requires that the adversary not be able to tell whether Alice and Bob are just having a normal conversation using the mandated encryption scheme, or they are using the mandated encryption scheme for subliminal communication.
Our topics may be thought to fall broadly within the realm of steganography: the science of hiding secret communication within innocent-looking messages, or cover objects. However, we deal with the non-standard setting of an adversarially chosen distribution of cover objects (i.e., a stronger-than-usual adversary), and we take advantage of the fact that our cover objects are ciphertexts of a semantically secure encryption scheme to bypass impossibility results which we show for broader classes of steganographic schemes. We give several constructions of subliminal communication schemes under the assumption that key exchange protocols with pseudorandom messages exist (such as Diffie-Hellman, which in fact has truly random messages). Each construction leverages the assumed semantic security of the adversarially chosen encryption scheme, in order to achieve subliminal communication.