November 8, 2013
NSA’s Influence on NIST Encryption Standards
The PRISM revelations indicate that the NSA has been eavesdropping on Internet communications by cracking and installing backdoors into the majority of cryptographic systems on the web. The classified documents released by Edward Snowden also indicate that the NSA works with the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST) to weaken international encryption standards, in order facilitate its spying activities. NIST is a federal technology industry that “makes measurements and sets standards as needed by industry or government programs”. They also work in cryptography to set standards for the functions that protects data such as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and DES (Digital Encryption Standard). NIST is required “by statute” to consult the NSA on certain standards, but to what extent the NSA influences NIST for its own benefit is still unclear.
The NSA claims that the agency’s role in standards development has made the Internet safer. “An NSA spokesperson said in an emailed statement -We use the cryptography and standards that we recommend, and we recommend the cryptography and standards that we use,” according to the statement. “Our participation in standards development has strengthened the core encryption technology that underpins the Internet.” But the revelations made by Snowden say something different. According to the documents leaked by Snowden, Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generation, or Dual_EC_DRBG is vulnerable to tampering and allows the spy agency to build in backdoor to access information. This algorithm has been under the scrutiny of security experts since 2006. They had suspected that the algorithm was insecure and can be cracked successfully.
Dual EC DRGB was slower than other random number generators proposed alongside, and was not very random. A random number generator is extremely important in cryptography as it strengthens the security of a system by making it less predictable and difficult to crack. The security experts predicted that knowing one variable e- in the curve equation could crack the algorithm. “Microsoft security employees Dan Shumow and Niels Ferguson presented this weakness [PDF] at the Crypto security conference in 2007. If an attacker knows e, then they can determine a small number of possibilities for the internal state of the Dual EC PRNG and predict future outputs,” they wrote in their presentation”. Despite of the vulnerabilities with the Dual EC DRGB algorithm, NIST approved it and several well-known companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Symantec and RSA included that algorithm in their product’s cryptographic libraries in order to become eligible for government contracts.
Besides Dual EC DRGB, concerns have been raised against the new hash function SHA-3. It is a mathematical operation that will produce a digital fingerprint for a set of data. The SHA-3 algorithm was the result of an international competition that ran from 2007 – 2012, under the supervision of NIST. While almost all the phases of the competition were open to public, the NIST committee’s discussions regarding the selection process were not public. Therefore it was not clear how they determined which teams should advance to the next levels. NIST has also made some minor changes to the SHA-3 hash algorithm called Keccak, which seems a little suspicious. As per the new changes -“The standard will incorporate two rather than the proposed four versions of the hash and some internal changes to the Keccak algorithm that experts fear will reduce SHA-3’s security”.
NIST has always denied the involvement of NSA in tampering NIST’s process of vetting and choosing encryption algorithms. However, these allegations have prompted NIST to review data encryption processes to restore its reputation in public eyes. As Donna Dodson, Chief of NIST’s computer security division said, “We will be reviewing our existing body of cryptographic work, looking at both our documented process and the specific procedures used to develop each of these standards and guidelines. If any current guidance does not meet the high standards set out in this process, we will address these issues as quickly as possible”.
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