Entries Tagged "Practical Cryptography"

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"The Cult of Schneier"

If there’s actually a cult out there, I want to hear about it. In an essay by that name, John Viega writes about the dangers of relying on Applied Cryptography to design cryptosystems:

But, after many years of evaluating the security of software systems, I’m incredibly down on using the book that made Bruce famous when designing the cryptographic aspects of a system. In fact, I can safely say I have never seen a secure system come out the other end, when that is the primary source for the crypto design. And I don’t mean that people forget about the buffer overflows. I mean, the crypto is crappy.

My rule for software development teams is simple: Don’t use Applied Cryptography in your system design. It’s fine and fun to read it, just don’t build from it.

[…]

The book talks about the fundamental building blocks of cryptography, but there is no guidance on things like, putting together all the pieces to create a secure, authenticated connection between two parties.

Plus, in the nearly 13 years since the book was last revised, our understanding of cryptography has changed greatly. There are things in it that were thought to be true at the time that turned out to be very false….

I agree. And, to his credit, Viega points out that I agree:

But in the introduction to Bruce Schneier’s book, Practical Cryptography, he himself says that the world is filled with broken systems built from his earlier book. In fact, he wrote Practical Cryptography in hopes of rectifying the problem.

This is all true.

Designing a cryptosystem is hard. Just as you wouldn’t give a person — even a doctor — a brain-surgery instruction manual and then expect him to operate on live patients, you shouldn’t give an engineer a cryptography book and then expect him to design and implement a cryptosystem. The patient is unlikely to survive, and the cryptosystem is unlikely to be secure.

Even worse, security doesn’t provide immediate feedback. A dead patient on the operating table tells the doctor that maybe he doesn’t understand brain surgery just because he read a book, but an insecure cryptosystem works just fine. It’s not until someone takes the time to break it that the engineer might realize that he didn’t do as good a job as he thought. Remember: Anyone can design a security system that he himself cannot break. Even the experts regularly get it wrong. The odds that an amateur will get it right are extremely low.

For those who are interested, a second edition of Practical Cryptography will be published in early 2010, renamed Cryptography Engineering and featuring a third author: Tadayoshi Kohno.

EDITED TO ADD (9/16): Commentary.

Posted on September 3, 2009 at 1:56 PMView Comments

The Strange Story of Dual_EC_DRBG

Random numbers are critical for cryptography: for encryption keys, random authentication challenges, initialization vectors, nonces, key-agreement schemes, generating prime numbers and so on. Break the random-number generator, and most of the time you break the entire security system. Which is why you should worry about a new random-number standard that includes an algorithm that is slow, badly designed and just might contain a backdoor for the National Security Agency.

Generating random numbers isn’t easy, and researchers have discovered lots of problems and attacks over the years. A recent paper found a flaw in the Windows 2000 random-number generator. Another paper found flaws in the Linux random-number generator. Back in 1996, an early version of SSL was broken because of flaws in its random-number generator. With John Kelsey and Niels Ferguson in 1999, I co-authored Yarrow, a random-number generator based on our own cryptanalysis work. I improved this design four years later — and renamed it Fortuna — in the book Practical Cryptography, which I co-authored with Ferguson.

The U.S. government released a new official standard for random-number generators this year, and it will likely be followed by software and hardware developers around the world. Called NIST Special Publication 800-90 (.pdf), the 130-page document contains four different approved techniques, called DRBGs, or “Deterministic Random Bit Generators.” All four are based on existing cryptographic primitives. One is based on hash functions, one on HMAC, one on block ciphers and one on elliptic curves. It’s smart cryptographic design to use only a few well-trusted cryptographic primitives, so building a random-number generator out of existing parts is a good thing.

But one of those generators — the one based on elliptic curves — is not like the others. Called Dual_EC_DRBG, not only is it a mouthful to say, it’s also three orders of magnitude slower than its peers. It’s in the standard only because it’s been championed by the NSA, which first proposed it years ago in a related standardization project at the American National Standards Institute.

The NSA has always been intimately involved in U.S. cryptography standards — it is, after all, expert in making and breaking secret codes. So the agency’s participation in the NIST (the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology) standard is not sinister in itself. It’s only when you look under the hood at the NSA’s contribution that questions arise.

Problems with Dual_EC_DRBG were first described in early 2006. The math is complicated, but the general point is that the random numbers it produces have a small bias. The problem isn’t large enough to make the algorithm unusable — and Appendix E of the NIST standard describes an optional work-around to avoid the issue — but it’s cause for concern. Cryptographers are a conservative bunch: We don’t like to use algorithms that have even a whiff of a problem.

But today there’s an even bigger stink brewing around Dual_EC_DRBG. In an informal presentation (.pdf) at the CRYPTO 2007 conference in August, Dan Shumow and Niels Ferguson showed that the algorithm contains a weakness that can only be described as a backdoor.

This is how it works: There are a bunch of constants — fixed numbers — in the standard used to define the algorithm’s elliptic curve. These constants are listed in Appendix A of the NIST publication, but nowhere is it explained where they came from.

What Shumow and Ferguson showed is that these numbers have a relationship with a second, secret set of numbers that can act as a kind of skeleton key. If you know the secret numbers, you can predict the output of the random-number generator after collecting just 32 bytes of its output. To put that in real terms, you only need to monitor one TLS internet encryption connection in order to crack the security of that protocol. If you know the secret numbers, you can completely break any instantiation of Dual_EC_DRBG.

The researchers don’t know what the secret numbers are. But because of the way the algorithm works, the person who produced the constants might know; he had the mathematical opportunity to produce the constants and the secret numbers in tandem.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the NSA knows the secret numbers that break Dual_EC-DRBG. We have no way of knowing whether an NSA employee working on his own came up with the constants — and has the secret numbers. We don’t know if someone from NIST, or someone in the ANSI working group, has them. Maybe nobody does.

We don’t know where the constants came from in the first place. We only know that whoever came up with them could have the key to this backdoor. And we know there’s no way for NIST — or anyone else — to prove otherwise.

This is scary stuff indeed.

Even if no one knows the secret numbers, the fact that the backdoor is present makes Dual_EC_DRBG very fragile. If someone were to solve just one instance of the algorithm’s elliptic-curve problem, he would effectively have the keys to the kingdom. He could then use it for whatever nefarious purpose he wanted. Or he could publish his result, and render every implementation of the random-number generator completely insecure.

It’s possible to implement Dual_EC_DRBG in such a way as to protect it against this backdoor, by generating new constants with another secure random-number generator and then publishing the seed. This method is even in the NIST document, in Appendix A. But the procedure is optional, and my guess is that most implementations of the Dual_EC_DRBG won’t bother.

If this story leaves you confused, join the club. I don’t understand why the NSA was so insistent about including Dual_EC_DRBG in the standard. It makes no sense as a trap door: It’s public, and rather obvious. It makes no sense from an engineering perspective: It’s too slow for anyone to willingly use it. And it makes no sense from a backwards-compatibility perspective: Swapping one random-number generator for another is easy.

My recommendation, if you’re in need of a random-number generator, is not to use Dual_EC_DRBG under any circumstances. If you have to use something in SP 800-90, use CTR_DRBG or Hash_DRBG.

In the meantime, both NIST and the NSA have some explaining to do.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on November 15, 2007 at 6:08 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.