Entries Tagged "key escrow"

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History of the First Crypto War

As we’re all gearing up to fight the Second Crypto War over governments’ demands to be able to back-door any cryptographic system, it pays for us to remember the history of the First Crypto War. The Open Technology Institute has written the story of those years in the mid-1990s.

The act that truly launched the Crypto Wars was the White House’s introduction of the “Clipper Chip” in 1993. The Clipper Chip was a state-of-the-art microchip developed by government engineers which could be inserted into consumer hardware telephones, providing the public with strong cryptographic tools without sacrificing the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access unencrypted versions of those communications. The technology relied on a system of “key escrow,” in which a copy of each chip’s unique encryption key would be stored by the government. Although White House officials mobilized both political and technical allies in support of the proposal, it faced immediate backlash from technical experts, privacy advocates, and industry leaders, who were concerned about the security and economic impact of the technology in addition to obvious civil liberties concerns. As the battle wore on throughout 1993 and into 1994, leaders from across the political spectrum joined the fray, supported by a broad coalition that opposed the Clipper Chip. When computer scientist Matt Blaze discovered a flaw in the system in May 1994, it proved to be the final death blow: the Clipper Chip was dead.

Nonetheless, the idea that the government could find a palatable way to access the keys to encrypted communications lived on throughout the 1990s. Many policymakers held onto hopes that it was possible to securely implement what they called “software key escrow” to preserve access to phone calls, emails, and other communications and storage applications. Under key escrow schemes, a government-certified third party would keep a “key” to every device. But the government’s shift in tactics ultimately proved unsuccessful; the privacy, security, and economic concerns continued to outweigh any potential benefits. By 1997, there was an overwhelming amount of evidence against moving ahead with any key escrow schemes.

The Second Crypto War is going to be harder and nastier, and I am less optimistic that strong cryptography will win in the short term.

Posted on June 22, 2015 at 1:35 PMView Comments

UN Report on the Value of Encryption to Freedom Worldwide

The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner released a report on the value of encryption and anonymity to the world:

Summary: In the present report, submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 25/2, the Special Rapporteur addresses the use of encryption and anonymity in digital communications. Drawing from research on international and national norms and jurisprudence, and the input of States and civil society, the report concludes that encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserve strong protection.

Here’s the bottom line:

60. States should not restrict encryption and anonymity, which facilitate and often enable the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. Blanket prohibitions fail to be necessary and proportionate. States should avoid all measures that weaken the security that individuals may enjoy online, such as backdoors, weak encryption standards and key escrows. In addition, States should refrain from making the identification of users a condition for access to digital communications and online services and requiring SIM card registration for mobile users. Corporate actors should likewise consider their own policies that restrict encryption and anonymity (including through the use of pseudonyms). Court-ordered decryption, subject to domestic and international law, may only be permissible when it results from transparent and publicly accessible laws applied solely on a targeted, case-by-case basis to individuals (i.e., not to a mass of people) and subject to judicial warrant and the protection of due process rights of individuals.

One news report called this “wishy-washy when it came to government-mandated backdoors to undermine encryption,” but I don’t see that. Government mandated backdoors, key escrow, and weak encryption are all bad. Corporations should offer their users strong encryption and anonymity. Any systems that still leave corporations with the keys and/or the data—and there are going to be lots of them—should only give them up to the government in the face of an individual and lawful court order.

I think the principles are reasonable.

Posted on May 29, 2015 at 7:49 AMView Comments

FREAK: Security Rollback Attack Against SSL

This week, we learned about an attack called “FREAK”—”Factoring Attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys”—that can break the encryption of many websites. Basically, some sites’ implementations of secure sockets layer technology, or SSL, contain both strong encryption algorithms and weak encryption algorithms. Connections are supposed to use the strong algorithms, but in many cases an attacker can force the website to use the weaker encryption algorithms and then decrypt the traffic. From Ars Technica:

In recent days, a scan of more than 14 million websites that support the secure sockets layer or transport layer security protocols found that more than 36 percent of them were vulnerable to the decryption attacks. The exploit takes about seven hours to carry out and costs as little as $100 per site.

This is a general class of attack I call “security rollback” attacks. Basically, the attacker forces the system users to revert to a less secure version of their protocol. Think about the last time you used your credit card. The verification procedure involved the retailer’s computer connecting with the credit card company. What if you snuck around to the back of the building and severed the retailer’s phone lines? Most likely, the retailer would have still accepted your card, but defaulted to making a manual impression of it and maybe looking at your signature. The result: you’ll have a much easier time using a stolen card.

In this case, the security flaw was designed in deliberately. Matthew Green writes:

Back in the early 1990s when SSL was first invented at Netscape Corporation, the United States maintained a rigorous regime of export controls for encryption systems. In order to distribute crypto outside of the U.S., companies were required to deliberately “weaken” the strength of encryption keys. For RSA encryption, this implied a maximum allowed key length of 512 bits.

The 512-bit export grade encryption was a compromise between dumb and dumber. In theory it was designed to ensure that the NSA would have the ability to “access” communications, while allegedly providing crypto that was still “good enough” for commercial use. Or if you prefer modern terms, think of it as the original “golden master key.”

The need to support export-grade ciphers led to some technical challenges. Since U.S. servers needed to support both strong and weak crypto, the SSL designers used a “cipher suite” negotiation mechanism to identify the best cipher both parties could support. In theory this would allow “strong” clients to negotiate “strong” ciphersuites with servers that supported them, while still providing compatibility to the broken foreign clients.

And that’s the problem. The weak algorithms are still there, and can be exploited by attackers.

Fixes are coming. Companies like Apple are quickly rolling out patches. But the vulnerability has been around for over a decade, and almost has certainly used by national intelligence agencies and criminals alike.

This is the generic problem with government-mandated backdoors, key escrow, “golden keys,” or whatever you want to call them. We don’t know how to design a third-party access system that checks for morality; once we build in such access, we then have to ensure that only the good guys can do it. And we can’t. Or, to quote the Economist: “…mathematics applies to just and unjust alike; a flaw that can be exploited by Western governments is vulnerable to anyone who finds it.”

This essay previously appeared on the Lawfare blog.

EDITED TO ADD: Microsoft Windows is vulnerable.

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 10:46 AMView Comments

More Crypto Wars II

FBI Director James Comey again called for an end to secure encryption by putting in a backdoor. Here’s his speech:

There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called “back door,” one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit.

But that isn’t true. We aren’t seeking a back-door approach. We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law. We are completely comfortable with court orders and legal process—front doors that provide the evidence and information we need to investigate crime and prevent terrorist attacks.

Cyber adversaries will exploit any vulnerability they find. But it makes more sense to address any security risks by developing intercept solutions during the design phase, rather than resorting to a patchwork solution when law enforcement comes knocking after the fact. And with sophisticated encryption, there might be no solution, leaving the government at a dead end—all in the name of privacy and network security.

I’m not sure why he believes he can have a technological means of access that somehow only works for people of the correct morality with the proper legal documents, but he seems to believe that’s possible. As Jeffrey Vagle and Matt Blaze point out, there’s no technical difference between Comey’s “front door” and a “back door.”

As in all of these sorts of speeches, Comey gave examples of crimes that could have been solved had only the police been able to decrypt the defendant’s phone. Unfortunately, none of the three stories is true. The Intercept tracked down each story, and none of them is actually a case where encryption foiled an investigation, arrest, or conviction:

In the most dramatic case that Comey invoked—the death of a 2-year-old Los Angeles girl—not only was cellphone data a non-issue, but records show the girl’s death could actually have been avoided had government agencies involved in overseeing her and her parents acted on the extensive record they already had before them.

In another case, of a Louisiana sex offender who enticed and then killed a 12-year-old boy, the big break had nothing to do with a phone: The murderer left behind his keys and a trail of muddy footprints, and was stopped nearby after his car ran out of gas.

And in the case of a Sacramento hit-and-run that killed a man and his girlfriend’s four dogs, the driver was arrested in a traffic stop because his car was smashed up, and immediately confessed to involvement in the incident.


His poor examples, however, were reminiscent of one cited by Ronald T. Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, in a widely cited—and thoroughly debunked—Washington Post opinion piece last month.

In that case, the Post was eventually forced to have Hosko rewrite the piece, with the following caveat appended:

Editors note: This story incorrectly stated that Apple and Google’s new encryption rules would have hindered law enforcement’s ability to rescue the kidnap victim in Wake Forest, N.C. This is not the case. The piece has been corrected.

Hadn’t Comey found anything better since then? In a question-and-answer session after his speech, Comey both denied trying to use scare stories to make his point—and admitted that he had launched a nationwide search for better ones, to no avail.

This is important. All the FBI talk about “going dark” and losing the ability to solve crimes is absolute bullshit. There is absolutely no evidence, either statistically or even anecdotally, that criminals are going free because of encryption.

So why are we even discussing the possibility to forcing companies to provide insecure encryption to their users and customers?

The EFF points out that companies are protected by law from being required to provide insecure security to make the FBI happy.

Sadly, I don’t think this is going to go away anytime soon.

My first post on these new Crypto Wars is here.

Posted on October 21, 2014 at 6:17 AMView Comments

Physical Key Escrow

This creates far more security risks than it solves:

The city council in Cedar Falls, Iowa has absolutely crossed the line. They voted 6-1 in favor of expanding the use of lock boxes on commercial property. Property owners would be forced to place the keys to their businesses in boxes outside their doors so that firefighters, in that one-in-a-million chance, would have easy access to get inside.

We in the computer security world have been here before, over ten years ago.

Posted on July 14, 2011 at 6:38 AMView Comments

U.S. Government to Encrypt All Laptops

This is a good idea:

To address the issue of data leaks of the kind we’ve seen so often in the last year because of stolen or missing laptops, writes Saqib Ali, the Feds are planning to use Full Disk Encryption (FDE) on all Government-owned computers.

“On June 23, 2006 a Presidential Mandate was put in place requiring all agency laptops to fully encrypt data on the HDD. The U.S. Government is currently conducting the largest single side-by-side comparison and competition for the selection of a Full Disk Encryption product. The selected product will be deployed on Millions of computers in the U.S. federal government space. This implementation will end up being the largest single implementation ever, and all of the information regarding the competition is in the public domain. The evaluation will come to an end in 90 days. You can view all the vendors competing and list of requirements.”

Certainly, encrypting everything is overkill, but it’s much easier than figuring out what to encrypt and what not to. And I really like that there is a open competition to choose which encryption program to use. It’s certainly a high-stakes competition among the vendors, but one that is likely to improve the security of all products. I’ve long said that one of the best things the government can do to improve computer security is to use its vast purchasing power to pressure vendors to improve their security. I would expect the winner to make a lot of sales outside of the contract, and for the losers to correct their deficiencies so they’ll do better next time.

Side note: Key escrow is a requirement, something that makes sense in a government or corporate application:

Capable of secure escrow and recovery of the symetric [sic] encryption key

I wonder if the NSA is involved in the evaluation at all, and if its analysis will be made public.

Posted on January 3, 2007 at 2:00 PMView Comments

VOIP Encryption

There are basically four ways to eavesdrop on a telephone call.

One, you can listen in on another phone extension. This is the method preferred by siblings everywhere. If you have the right access, it’s the easiest. While it doesn’t work for cell phones, cordless phones are vulnerable to a variant of this attack: A radio receiver set to the right frequency can act as another extension.

Two, you can attach some eavesdropping equipment to the wire with a pair of alligator clips. It takes some expertise, but you can do it anywhere along the phone line’s path—even outside the home. This used to be the way the police eavesdropped on your phone line. These days it’s probably most often used by criminals. This method doesn’t work for cell phones, either.

Three, you can eavesdrop at the telephone switch. Modern phone equipment includes the ability for someone to listen in this way. Currently, this is the preferred police method. It works for both land lines and cell phones. You need the right access, but if you can get it, this is probably the most comfortable way to eavesdrop on a particular person.

Four, you can tap the main trunk lines, eavesdrop on the microwave or satellite phone links, etc. It’s hard to eavesdrop on one particular person this way, but it’s easy to listen in on a large chunk of telephone calls. This is the sort of big-budget surveillance that organizations like the National Security Agency do best. They’ve even been known to use submarines to tap undersea phone cables.

That’s basically the entire threat model for traditional phone calls. And when most people think about IP telephony—voice over internet protocol, or VOIP—that’s the threat model they probably have in their heads.

Unfortunately, phone calls from your computer are fundamentally different from phone calls from your telephone. Internet telephony’s threat model is much closer to the threat model for IP-networked computers than the threat model for telephony.

And we already know the threat model for IP. Data packets can be eavesdropped on anywhere along the transmission path. Data packets can be intercepted in the corporate network, by the internet service provider and along the backbone. They can be eavesdropped on by the people or organizations that own those computers, and they can be eavesdropped on by anyone who has successfully hacked into those computers. They can be vacuumed up by nosy hackers, criminals, competitors and governments.

It’s comparable to threat No. 3 above, but with the scope vastly expanded.

My greatest worry is the criminal attacks. We already have seen how clever criminals have become over the past several years at stealing account information and personal data. I can imagine them eavesdropping on attorneys, looking for information with which to blackmail people. I can imagine them eavesdropping on bankers, looking for inside information with which to make stock purchases. I can imagine them stealing account information, hijacking telephone calls, committing identity theft. On the business side, I can see them engaging in industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets. In short, I can imagine them doing all the things they could never have done with the traditional telephone network.

This is why encryption for VOIP is so important. VOIP calls are vulnerable to a variety of threats that traditional telephone calls are not. Encryption is one of the essential security technologies for computer data, and it will go a long way toward securing VOIP.

The last time this sort of thing came up, the U.S. government tried to sell us something called “key escrow.” Basically, the government likes the idea of everyone using encryption, as long as it has a copy of the key. This is an amazingly insecure idea for a number of reasons, mostly boiling down to the fact that when you provide a means of access into a security system, you greatly weaken its security.

A recent case in Greece demonstrated that perfectly: Criminals used a cell-phone eavesdropping mechanism already in place, designed for the police to listen in on phone calls. Had the call system been designed to be secure in the first place, there never would have been a backdoor for the criminals to exploit.

Fortunately, there are many VOIP-encryption products available. Skype has built-in encryption. Phil Zimmermann is releasing Zfone, an easy-to-use open-source product. There’s even a VOIP Security Alliance.

Encryption for IP telephony is important, but it’s not a panacea. Basically, it takes care of threats No. 2 through No. 4, but not threat No. 1. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest threat: eavesdropping at the end points. No amount of IP telephony encryption can prevent a Trojan or worm on your computer—or just a hacker who managed to get access to your machine—from eavesdropping on your phone calls, just as no amount of SSL or e-mail encryption can prevent a Trojan on your computer from eavesdropping—or even modifying—your data.

So, as always, it boils down to this: We need secure computers and secure operating systems even more than we need secure transmission.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on April 6, 2006 at 5:09 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.