Essays Tagged "Information Management & Computer Security"

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Security Pitfalls in Cryptography

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Management & Computer Security
  • 1998

French translation

Magazine articles like to describe cryptography products in terms of algorithms and key length. Algorithms make good sound bites: they can be explained in a few words and they’re easy to compare with one another. “128-bit keys mean good security.” “Triple-DES means good security.” “40-bit keys mean weak security.” “2048-bit RSA is better than 1024-bit RSA.”

But reality isn’t that simple. Longer keys don’t always mean more security. Compare the cryptographic algorithm to the lock on your front door. Most door locks have four metal pins, each of which can be in one of ten positions. A key sets the pins in a particular configuration. If the key aligns them all correctly, then the lock opens. So there are only 10,000 possible keys, and a burglar willing to try all 10,000 is guaranteed to break into your house. But an improved lock with ten pins, making 10 billion possible keys, probably won’t make your house more secure. Burglars don’t try every possible key (a brute-force attack); most aren’t even clever enough to pick the lock (a cryptographic attack against the algorithm). They smash windows, kick in doors, disguise themselves as policemen, or rob keyholders at gunpoint. One ring of art thieves in California defeated home security systems by taking a chainsaw to the house walls. Better locks don’t help against these attacks…

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.