Entries Tagged "snake oil"

Page 2 of 3

Automatic Scanning for Highly Stressed Individuals

This borders on ridiculous:

Chinese scientists are developing a mini-camera to scan crowds for highly stressed individuals, offering law-enforcement officers a potential tool to spot would-be suicide bombers.

[…]

“They all looked and behaved as ordinary people but their level of mental stress must have been extremely high before they launched their attacks. Our technology can detect such people, so law enforcement officers can take precautions and prevent these tragedies,” Chen said.

Officers looking through the device at a crowd would see a mental “stress bar” above each person’s head, and the suspects highlighted with a red face.

The researchers said they were able to use the technology to tell the difference between high-blood oxygen levels produced by stress rather than just physical exertion.

I’m not optimistic about this technology.

Posted on August 13, 2014 at 6:20 AMView Comments

New Al Qaeda Encryption Software

The Web intelligence company Recorded Future is reportingpicked up by the Wall Street Journal — that al Qaeda is using new encryption software in the wake of the Snowden stories. I’ve been fielding press queries, asking me how this will adversely affect US intelligence efforts.

I think the reverse is true. I think this will help US intelligence efforts. Cryptography is hard, and the odds that a home-brew encryption product is better than a well-studied open-source tool is slight. Last fall, Matt Blaze said to me that he thought that the Snowden documents will usher in a new dark age of cryptography, as people abandon good algorithms and software for snake oil of their own devising. My guess is that this an example of that.

Posted on May 14, 2014 at 6:30 AMView Comments

"Unbreakable" Encryption Almost Certainly Isn't

This headline is provocative: “Human biology inspires ‘unbreakable’ encryption.”

The article is similarly nonsensical:

Researchers at Lancaster University, UK have taken a hint from the way the human lungs and heart constantly communicate with each other, to devise an innovative, highly flexible encryption algorithm that they claim can’t be broken using the traditional methods of cyberattack.

Information can be encrypted with an array of different algorithms, but the question of which method is the most secure is far from trivial. Such algorithms need a “key” to encrypt and decrypt information; the algorithms typically generate their keys using a well-known set of rules that can only admit a very large, but nonetheless finite number of possible keys. This means that in principle, given enough time and computing power, prying eyes can always break the code eventually.

The researchers, led by Dr. Tomislav Stankovski, created an encryption mechanism that can generate a truly unlimited number of keys, which they say vastly increases the security of the communication. To do so, they took inspiration from the anatomy of the human body.

Regularly, someone from outside cryptography — who has no idea how crypto works — pops up and says “hey, I can solve their problems.” Invariably, they make some trivial encryption scheme because they don’t know better.

Remember: anyone can create a cryptosystem that he himself cannot break. And this advice from 15 years ago is still relevant.

Another article, and the paper.

Posted on April 8, 2014 at 6:16 AMView Comments

The Doghouse: Singularics

This is priceless:

Our advances in Prime Number Theory have led to a new branch of mathematics called Neutronics. Neutronic functions make possible for the first time the ability to analyze regions of mathematics commonly thought to be undefined, such as the point where one is divided by zero. In short, we have developed a new way to analyze the undefined point at the singularity which appears throughout higher mathematics.

This new analytic technique has given us profound insight into the way that prime numbers are distributed throughout the integers. According to RSA’s website, there are over 1 billion licensed instances of RSA public-key encryption in use in the world today. Each of these instances of the prime number based RSA algorithm can now be deciphered using Neutronic analysis. Unlike RSA, Neutronic Encryption is not based on two large prime numbers but rather on the Neutronic forces that govern the distribution of the primes themselves. The encryption that results from Singularic’s Neutronic public-key algorithm is theoretically impossible to break.

You’d think that anyone who claims to be able to decrypt RSA at the key lengths in use today would, maybe, um, demonstrate that at least once. Otherwise, this can all be safely ignored as snake oil.

The founder and CTO also claims to have proved the Riemann Hypothesis, if you care to wade through the 63-page paper.

EDITED TO ADD (3/30): The CTO has responded to me.

Posted on February 25, 2009 at 2:00 PMView Comments

Idiotic Cryptography Reporting

Oh, this is funny:

A team of researchers and engineers at a UK division of Franco-German aerospace giant EADS has developed what it believes is the world’s first hacker-proof encryption technology for the internet.

[…]

Gordon Duncan, the division’s government and commercial sales manager, said he was convinced that sensitive data could now be sent across the world without fear of it being spied on by hackers. “All the computer technology in the world cannot break it,” he said yesterday.

At the heart of the system is the lightning speed with which the “keys” needed to enter the computer systems can be scrambled and re-formatted. Just when a hacker thinks he or she has broken the code, the code changes. “There is nothing to compare with it,” said Mr Duncan.

EADS is in talks with the Pentagon about supplying the US military with the system, although some American defence companies are also working on what they believe will be fool-proof encryption systems.

Snake oil, absolute snake oil.

EDITED TO ADD (9/26): Steve Bellovin, who knows what he’s talking about, writes:

Actually, it’s not snake oil, it’s very solid — till it got to Marketing. The folks at EADS built a high-assurance, Type I (or the British equivalent) IP encryptor — a HAIPE, in NSA-speak. Their enemy isn’t “hackers”, it’s the PLA and the KGB++. See this and this.

Of course, Marketing did get hold of it.

David Lacey makes the same point here.

Posted on September 24, 2007 at 1:58 PMView Comments

A Security Market for Lemons

More than a year ago, I wrote about the increasing risks of data loss because more and more data fits in smaller and smaller packages. Today I use a 4-GB USB memory stick for backup while I am traveling. I like the convenience, but if I lose the tiny thing I risk all my data.

Encryption is the obvious solution for this problem — I use PGPdisk — but Secustick sounds even better: It automatically erases itself after a set number of bad password attempts. The company makes a bunch of other impressive claims: The product was commissioned, and eventually approved, by the French intelligence service; it is used by many militaries and banks; its technology is revolutionary.

Unfortunately, the only impressive aspect of Secustick is its hubris, which was revealed when Tweakers.net completely broke its security. There’s no data self-destruct feature. The password protection can easily be bypassed. The data isn’t even encrypted. As a secure storage device, Secustick is pretty useless.

On the surface, this is just another snake-oil security story. But there’s a deeper question: Why are there so many bad security products out there? It’s not just that designing good security is hard — although it is — and it’s not just that anyone can design a security product that he himself cannot break. Why do mediocre security products beat the good ones in the marketplace?

In 1970, American economist George Akerlof wrote a paper called “The Market for ‘Lemons‘” (abstract and article for pay here), which established asymmetrical information theory. He eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work, which looks at markets where the seller knows a lot more about the product than the buyer.

Akerlof illustrated his ideas with a used car market. A used car market includes both good cars and lousy ones (lemons). The seller knows which is which, but the buyer can’t tell the difference — at least until he’s made his purchase. I’ll spare you the math, but what ends up happening is that the buyer bases his purchase price on the value of a used car of average quality.

This means that the best cars don’t get sold; their prices are too high. Which means that the owners of these best cars don’t put their cars on the market. And then this starts spiraling. The removal of the good cars from the market reduces the average price buyers are willing to pay, and then the very good cars no longer sell, and disappear from the market. And then the good cars, and so on until only the lemons are left.

In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market.

The computer security market has a lot of the same characteristics of Akerlof’s lemons market. Take the market for encrypted USB memory sticks. Several companies make encrypted USB drives — Kingston Technology sent me one in the mail a few days ago — but even I couldn’t tell you if Kingston’s offering is better than Secustick. Or if it’s better than any other encrypted USB drives. They use the same encryption algorithms. They make the same security claims. And if I can’t tell the difference, most consumers won’t be able to either.

Of course, it’s more expensive to make an actually secure USB drive. Good security design takes time, and necessarily means limiting functionality. Good security testing takes even more time, especially if the product is any good. This means the less-secure product will be cheaper, sooner to market and have more features. In this market, the more-secure USB drive is going to lose out.

I see this kind of thing happening over and over in computer security. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were more than a hundred competing firewall products. The few that “won” weren’t the most secure firewalls; they were the ones that were easy to set up, easy to use and didn’t annoy users too much. Because buyers couldn’t base their buying decision on the relative security merits, they based them on these other criteria. The intrusion detection system, or IDS, market evolved the same way, and before that the antivirus market. The few products that succeeded weren’t the most secure, because buyers couldn’t tell the difference.

How do you solve this? You need what economists call a “signal,” a way for buyers to tell the difference. Warranties are a common signal. Alternatively, an independent auto mechanic can tell good cars from lemons, and a buyer can hire his expertise. The Secustick story demonstrates this. If there is a consumer advocate group that has the expertise to evaluate different products, then the lemons can be exposed.

Secustick, for one, seems to have been withdrawn from sale.

But security testing is both expensive and slow, and it just isn’t possible for an independent lab to test everything. Unfortunately, the exposure of Secustick is an exception. It was a simple product, and easily exposed once someone bothered to look. A complex software product — a firewall, an IDS — is very hard to test well. And, of course, by the time you have tested it, the vendor has a new version on the market.

In reality, we have to rely on a variety of mediocre signals to differentiate the good security products from the bad. Standardization is one signal. The widely used AES encryption standard has reduced, although not eliminated, the number of lousy encryption algorithms on the market. Reputation is a more common signal; we choose security products based on the reputation of the company selling them, the reputation of some security wizard associated with them, magazine reviews, recommendations from colleagues or general buzz in the media.

All these signals have their problems. Even product reviews, which should be as comprehensive as the Tweakers’ Secustick review, rarely are. Many firewall comparison reviews focus on things the reviewers can easily measure, like packets per second, rather than how secure the products are. In IDS comparisons, you can find the same bogus “number of signatures” comparison. Buyers lap that stuff up; in the absence of deep understanding, they happily accept shallow data.

With so many mediocre security products on the market, and the difficulty of coming up with a strong quality signal, vendors don’t have strong incentives to invest in developing good products. And the vendors that do tend to die a quiet and lonely death.

This essay originally appeared in Wired.

EDITED TO ADD (4/22): Slashdot thread.

Posted on April 19, 2007 at 7:59 AMView Comments

The Doghouse: SecureRF

SecureRF:

Claims to offer the first feasible security for RFIDs. Conventional public key cryptography (such as RSA) is far too computationally intensive for an RFID. SecureRF provides a similar technology at far lower footprint by harnessing a relatively obscure area of mathematics: infinite group theory, which comes (of all places) from knot theory, a branch of topology.

Their website claims to have “white papers” on the theory, but you have to give them your personal information to get it. Of course, they reference no actual published cryptography papers. “New mathematics” is my Snake-Oil Warning Sign #2 — and I strongly suspect their documentation displays several other of the warning signs, too. I’d stay away from this one.

Posted on October 9, 2006 at 7:47 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.