11 Mar 2017
NYT on Crypto
Way back in 2013, I wrote about the NSA leaks and how I didn’t think that they signified any fundamental change in the balance of power between cryptographers and cryptanalysts that has been going on for centuries. It would seem that the New York Times has finally worked through their backlog and more or less agrees.
(The article in question comes from the AP, so if the NYT website doesn’t want to load or gets paywalled or taken out by a Trump Republic drone strike at some point in the future, you can always just Google the title and turn it up. Probably.)
The tl;dr version:
Documents purportedly outlining a massive CIA surveillance program suggest that CIA agents must go to great lengths to circumvent encryption they can’t break. In many cases, physical presence is required to carry off these targeted attacks. […] It’s much like the old days when “they would have broken into a house to plant a microphone,” said Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University professor who has long studied cybersecurity issues.
In other words, it’s pretty much what we expect the CIA to be doing, and what they’re presumably pretty good at, or at least ought to be pretty good at given the amount of time they’ve had to get good at it.
Which means that I was pretty much on target back in 2013, and the sky-is-falling brigade was not:
My guess […] is that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with public key crypto, or even in many carefully-built implementations. It’s when you start optmizing for cost or speed that you open the door.
So: if you are very, very careful, you will still be able to build up a reasonably-secure infrastructure using currently available hardware and software. (‘Reasonably secure’ meaning resistant to untargeted mass surveillance, not necessarily to a targeted attack that might include physical bugging: that’s a much higher bar.) However, some code may need to be changed in order to eliminate any reliance on possibly-compromised components, such as hardware RNGs / accelerators that by their nature are difficult to audit.
In the past few years, most widely-used crypto libraries have moved away from hardware PRNGs that are thought to be suspect, and generally taken a less seat-of-the-pants approach to optimizing for speed than was previously (sometimes) the case. For security, this is largely a good thing.
In terms of intelligence-gathering capability, it’s presumably a degradation vs. the mass-intercept capability that certain agencies might have had when more traffic was unencrypted or poorly-encrypted, but it was foolish to believe that situation was going to go on forever. End-to-end crypto has been a goal of the pro-security tech community (formerly and now cringingly referred to as “cypherpunks”, back when that seemed like a cool name) for almost two decades, and would have happened eventually.
The IC still has significant tools at its disposal, including traffic analysis and metadata analysis, targeted bruteforcing of particular messages, encrypted content, or SSL/TLS sessions, endpoint compromises, human factors compromise, and potentially future developments in the quantum cryptography/cryptanalysis space. Without defending or minimizing Snowden et al, I do not think that it means the end of intelligence in any meaningful sense; those predictions, too, were overstated.
Anyway, it’s always nice to get some validation once in a while that the worst predictions don’t always turn out to be the correct ones. (Doesn’t quite make up for my hilariously blown call on the election, but at least I wasn’t alone in that one.)
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