Entries Tagged "NSA"

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Brian Snow on Security

Good paper (.pdf) by Brian Snow of the NSA on security and assurance.

Abstract: When will we be secure? Nobody knows for sure — but it cannot happen before commercial security products and services possess not only enough functionality to satisfy customers’ stated needs, but also sufficient assurance of quality, reliability, safety, and appropriateness for use. Such assurances are lacking in most of today’s commercial security products and services. I discuss paths to better assurance in Operating Systems, Applications, and Hardware through better development environments, requirements definition, systems engineering, quality certification, and legal/regulatory constraints. I also give some examples.

Posted on December 13, 2005 at 2:15 PMView Comments

Secret NSA Patents

From The New Scientist:

The hyper-secretive US National Security Agency — the government’s eavesdropping arm — appears to be having its patent applications increasingly blocked by the Pentagon. And the grounds for this are for reasons of national security, reveals information obtained under a freedom of information request.

Most Western governments can prevent the granting (and therefore publishing) of patents on inventions deemed to contain sensitive information of use to an enemy or terrorists. They do so by issuing a secrecy order barring publication and even discussion of certain inventions.

Experts at the US Patent and Trademark Office perform an initial security screening of all patent applications and then army, air force and navy staff at the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) makes the final decision on what is classified and what is not.

Now figures obtained from the USPTO under a freedom of information request by the Federation of American Scientists show that the NSA had nine of its patent applications blocked in the financial year to March 2005 against five in 2004, and none in each of the three years up to 2003.

EDITED TO ADD: This story is wrong.

Posted on November 1, 2005 at 7:46 AMView Comments

NSA Watch

Three things.

U.S. Patent #6,947,978:

Method for geolocating logical network addresses

Abstract: Method for geolocating logical network addresses on electronically switched dynamic communications networks, such as the Internet, using the time latency of communications to and from the logical network address to determine its location. Minimum round-trip communications latency is measured between numerous stations on the network and known network addressed equipment to form a network latency topology map. Minimum round-trip communications latency is also measured between the stations and the logical network address to be geolocated. The resulting set of minimum round-trip communications latencies is then correlated with the network latency topology map to determine the location of the network address to be geolocated.

Fact Sheet NSA Suite B Cryptography“:

The entire suite of cryptographic algorithms is intended to protect both classified and unclassified national security systems and information. Because Suite B is a also subset of the cryptographic algorithms approved by the National Institute of Standards, Suite B is also suitable for use throughout government. NSA’s goal in presenting Suite B is to provide industry with a common set of cryptographic algorithms that they can use to create products that meet the needs of the widest range of US Government (USG) needs.

The Case for Elliptic Curve Cryptography“:

Elliptic Curve Cryptography provides greater security and more efficient performance than the first generation public key techniques (RSA and Diffie-Hellman) now in use. As vendors look to upgrade their systems they should seriously consider the elliptic curve alternative for the computational and bandwidth advantages they offer at comparable security.

Posted on September 30, 2005 at 7:31 AMView Comments

The Legacy of DES

The Data Encryption Standard, or DES, was a mid-’70s brainchild of the National Bureau of Standards: the first modern, public, freely available encryption algorithm. For over two decades, DES was the workhorse of commercial cryptography.

Over the decades, DES has been used to protect everything from databases in mainframe computers, to the communications links between ATMs and banks, to data transmissions between police cars and police stations. Whoever you are, I can guarantee that many times in your life, the security of your data was protected by DES.

Just last month, the former National Bureau of Standards–the agency is now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST–proposed withdrawing DES as an encryption standard, signifying the end of the federal government’s most important technology standard, one more important than ASCII, I would argue.

Today, cryptography is one of the most basic tools of computer security, but 30 years ago it barely existed as an academic discipline. In the days when the Internet was little more than a curiosity, cryptography wasn’t even a recognized branch of mathematics. Secret codes were always fascinating, but they were pencil-and-paper codes based on alphabets. In the secret government labs during World War II, cryptography entered the computer era and became mathematics. But with no professors teaching it, and no conferences discussing it, all the cryptographic research in the United States was conducted at the National Security Agency.

And then came DES.

Back in the early 1970s, it was a radical idea. The National Bureau of Standards decided that there should be a free encryption standard. Because the agency wanted it to be non-military, they solicited encryption algorithms from the public. They got only one serious response–the Data Encryption Standard–from the labs of IBM. In 1976, DES became the government’s standard encryption algorithm for “sensitive but unclassified” traffic. This included things like personal, financial and logistical information. And simply because there was nothing else, companies began using DES whenever they needed an encryption algorithm. Of course, not everyone believed DES was secure.

When IBM submitted DES as a standard, no one outside the National Security Agency had any expertise to analyze it. The NSA made two changes to DES: It tweaked the algorithm, and it cut the key size by more than half.

The strength of an algorithm is based on two things: how good the mathematics is, and how long the key is. A sure way of breaking an algorithm is to try every possible key. Modern algorithms have a key so long that this is impossible; even if you built a computer out of all the silicon atoms on the planet and ran it for millions of years, you couldn’t do it. So cryptographers look for shortcuts. If the mathematics are weak, maybe there’s a way to find the key faster: “breaking” the algorithm.

The NSA’s changes caused outcry among the few who paid attention, both regarding the “invisible hand” of the NSA–the tweaks were not made public, and no rationale was given for the final design–and the short key length.

But with the outcry came research. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the publication of DES created the modern academic discipline of cryptography. The first academic cryptographers began their careers by trying to break DES, or at least trying to understand the NSA’s tweak. And almost all of the encryption algorithms–public-key cryptography, in particular–can trace their roots back to DES. Papers analyzing different aspects of DES are still being published today.

By the mid-1990s, it became widely believed that the NSA was able to break DES by trying every possible key. This ability was demonstrated in 1998, when a $220,000 machine was built that could brute-force a DES key in a few days. In 1985, the academic community proposed a DES variant with the same mathematics but a longer key, called triple-DES. This variant had been used in more secure applications in place of DES for years, but it was time for a new standard. In 1997, NIST solicited an algorithm to replace DES.

The process illustrates the complete transformation of cryptography from a secretive NSA technology to a worldwide public technology. NIST once again solicited algorithms from the public, but this time the agency got 15 submissions from 10 countries. My own algorithm, Twofish, was one of them. And after two years of analysis and debate, NIST chose a Belgian algorithm, Rijndael, to become the Advanced Encryption Standard.

It’s a different world in cryptography now than it was 30 years ago. We know more about cryptography, and have more algorithms to choose among. AES won’t become a ubiquitous standard in the same way that DES did. But it is finding its way into banking security products, Internet security protocols, even computerized voting machines. A NIST standard is an imprimatur of quality and security, and vendors recognize that.

So, how good is the NSA at cryptography? They’re certainly better than the academic world. They have more mathematicians working on the problems, they’ve been working on them longer, and they have access to everything published in the academic world, while they don’t have to make their own results public. But are they a year ahead of the state of the art? Five years? A decade? No one knows.

It took the academic community two decades to figure out that the NSA “tweaks” actually improved the security of DES. This means that back in the ’70s, the National Security Agency was two decades ahead of the state of the art.

Today, the NSA is still smarter, but the rest of us are catching up quickly. In 1999, the academic community discovered a weakness in another NSA algorithm, SHA, that the NSA claimed to have discovered only four years previously. And just last week there was a published analysis of the NSA’s SHA-1 that demonstrated weaknesses that we believe the NSA didn’t know about at all.

Maybe now we’re just a couple of years behind.

This essay was originally published on CNet.com

Posted on October 6, 2004 at 6:05 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.