NSA-Developed Crypto Technology No Longer Trusted For Use In Global Standards

from the I-just-can't-think-why dept

One of the most shocking pieces of information to emerge from the Snowden documents was that the NSA had paid RSA $10 million to push a weakened form of crypto in its products. The big advantage for the NSA was that it made it much easier to decrypt messages sent using that flawed technology. A few months after this news, the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced that it would remove the “Dual Elliptic Curve” (Dual EC) algorithm from its recommendations. But of course, that’s not the end of the story. Betraying trust is always a bad idea, but in the security field it’s an incredibly stupid idea, since trust is a key aspect of the way things work in that shadowy world. So it should come as no surprise that following the Dual EC revelations, the world’s security experts no longer trust the NSA:

An international group of cryptography experts has forced the U.S. National Security Agency to back down over two data encryption techniques it wanted set as global industry standards, reflecting deep mistrust among close U.S. allies.

In interviews and emails seen by Reuters, academic and industry experts from countries including Germany, Japan and Israel worried that the U.S. electronic spy agency was pushing the new techniques not because they were good encryption tools, but because it knew how to break them.

The NSA has now agreed to drop all but the most powerful versions of the techniques — those least likely to be vulnerable to hacks — to address the concerns.

The Reuters report has interesting comments from security experts explaining why they opposed the new standards. Concerns included the lack of peer-reviewed publication by the creators, the absence of industry adoption or a clear need for the new approaches. There’s also the intriguing fact that the UK was happy for the NSA algorithms to be adopted. Given the extremely close working relationship GCHQ has with the NSA, you can’t help wondering whether the UK’s support was because it too knew how to break the proposed encryption techniques, and therefore was keen for them to be rolled out widely. Certainly, the reason its representative gave for backing the two NSA data encryption methods, known as Simon and Speck, was feeble in the extreme:

Chris Mitchell, a member of the British delegation, said he supported Simon and Speck, noting that “no one has succeeded in breaking the algorithms.?

Moreover, it was only half-true: the Reuters story says that academics have already had “partial success” in finding weaknesses, which surely calls for a cautious approach and more research, rather than simply accepting the proposal and hoping for the best. And even the British representative had to admit that his NSA mates had totally blown it:

He acknowledged, though, that after the Dual EC revelations, “trust, particularly for U.S. government participants in standardization, is now non-existent.”

As the NSA — and also the W3C, thanks to its blessing of DRM in HTML — will now find, regaining that lost trust will be a long and difficult process. Maybe others can learn from their (bad) examples.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “NSA-Developed Crypto Technology No Longer Trusted For Use In Global Standards”

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Ninja (profile) says:

“trust, particularly for U.S. government participants in standardization, is now non-existent.”

What was the saying?

You heap what you sow?

And that’s true in many other aspects for the US government particularly and this saddens me because I know a few Americans and I personally feel that they (Americans as a whole) are better than that.

David says:


Why would cryptographers trust the NSA in the first place? I think the point is rather that nobody trusts RSA any more because they let themselves be paid by the NSA for proposing an algorithm that is not inherently weak but can be weakened by using prescribed constants with unknown history (that could amount to being the public key for a weakness where the corresponding secret key to the weakness is in the NSA’s hand).

People know that the NSA has vested interests. It’s rather RSA that has taken a markedly fishy course not in coherence with their reputation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Huh?

Historically, NSA’s mission to secure computing resources against attack was presumed to trump their mission to obtain unauthorized access to computing systems. This was even supported in the case of DES, where NSA influenced the S-boxes to be more secure (though even there, NSA also influenced the key size downward, weakening it against brute force). Whether that downward influence was for unauthorized access or simple implementation efficiency (for performance, you always want to use the fastest cipher that will withstand all expected adversaries, and shrinking the key can make the cipher faster at the expense of security), their conduct over the last few decades has shown that they now place the mission of obtaining unauthorized access far above their mission of securing computing resources. Thus, while they might once have been helpful to cryptographers because they employed smart people to work on pro-security designs, they are now clearly hostile to cryptographers and must be treated as such.

Almost Anonymous says:

Just a small point

Glyn, we knew about the problems with Dual EC a long time ago, about 5 years before the Snowden releases. Most folks in the security community distrusted Dual EC for two reasons: the NSA was pushing it, and there was already research that indicated that the algorithm had an innate backdoor. That backdoor, combined with the NSA’s desire to push it for use, pretty much confirmed that the algorithm was already compromised. Read more (and better) summary here: https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/11/the_strange_sto.html

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