New Developments in Cryptography

Wired reports in this article of a recent advance in deployed cryptography by Google.

Last summer the NSA published an advisory about the need to develop and implement new crypto algorithms resistent to quantum computers. Indeed if and when quantum computers will arrive, they will be able to crack easily some of the most fundamental crypto algorithms in use, like RSA and Diffie Hellman. The development of quantum computers is slow, still it continues and it is reasonable to expect that sooner or later, some say in 20 years, they will become reality. Also the development of new crypto algorithms is slow, so the quest for crypto algorithms resistant to quantum computers, also called post-quantum crypto, has already been going on for a few years.

Very recently Google has announced the first real test case of one of these new post-quantum algorithms. Google will deploy to some Chrome Browsers an implementation of the Ring-LWE post-quantum algorithm. This algorithm will be used by the chosen test users, to connect to some Google services. Ring-LWE will be used together with the current crypto algorithms adopted by the browser. Composing the current algorithms with Ring-LWE will guarantee a combined level of security, that is the minimum level of security is that of the strongest algorithm used in the combination. It should be noted that Ring-LWE is a much more recent crypto algorithm compared to the standard ones, and its security has not been established yet to a comparable level of confidence.

If the level of security will not decrease and hopefully just increase, it has to be seen how it will work in practice in particular for performances.

For modern cryptography this two-year Google’s project could become a cornerstone for the development and deployment of post-quantum algorithms.

Implementing Cryptography right is hard

The security researcher Gal Beniamini has just published here the results of his investigation on the security of Android’s Full Disk Encrytion and found a way to get around it on smartphones and tablets based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset.

The cryptography is ok but some a priori minor implementation details give the possibility to resourceful attackers (like state / nation agencies or well funded organized crime groups) of extracting the secret keys which should be protected in hardware. The knowledge of these keys would allow to decrypt the data in the file systems, the very issue which has been at the basis of the famous Apple vs. FBI case a few months ago.

Software patches have been released by Google and Qualcomm but, as usual with smartphones and tablets, it is not clear how many afflicted devices have received the update or will ever receive it.

In a few words, the problem lies in the interface between the Qualcomm’s hardware module, called the KeyMaster module, which generates, manages and protects the secret keys and the Android Operating System that needs to indirectly access the keys in this case to encrypt and decrypt the file-system. Some KeyMaster’s functions used by Android can be abused to make them reveal the secret keys.

This is another case which proves how it is difficult to implement cryptography right.

Monitoring Outgoing Traffic to Detect Intrusions

Monitoring outgoing traffic to detect intrusions in IT systems is not a new concept but often it does not seem to be enough appreciated, understood and implemented.

IT security defences cannot guarantee us against every possibile attack, so we must be prepared to the event of an intrusion and to manage the associated incident.

The first step in incident management is to detect an intrusion. Traditional tools like Anti-Virus, Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems (IDS/IPS) etc. do their job but they can be bypassed. But intrusions can also be detected by monitoring the outgoing traffic.

In my recent personal experience, some intrusions have been detected and stopped because the outgoing traffic was monitored and blocked. Since the deployed malware was not able to call back home, it did not do anything and there was no damage; and since the outgoing traffic was monitored, the intrusion was immediately detected.

But monitoring the outgoing traffic to detect intrusions is becoming more and more difficult. For example attackers are adopting more often stealth techniques like using fake DNS queries. An interesting example has been recently described by FireEye in “MULTIGRAIN – POINT OF SALE ATTACKERS MAKE AN UNHEALTHY ADDITION TO THE PANTRY” . In this case, malware is exfiltrating data by making DNS calls to domains with names like log.<encoded data to exfiltrate>.evildomain.com . Obviously the DNS query fails, but in the logs of the receiving DNS server it is written the name of the requested domain, that is the data that the malware is exfiltrating.

As attackers are getting more creative to hide the back communication between malware and their Command & Control services, IT Security will need to devise more proactive approaches to monitoring and blocking outgoing traffic.

One of the first examples of IoT and security risks

Among IT practitioners there are a lot of ideas and discussions on the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and the security risks associated to them.

If IoT has many positive and useful future developments, the security aspects are very difficult to manage to the point of posing a very big question mark on the idea itself of IoT.

One example is described in the research “House of Keys: Industry-Wide HTTPS Certificate and SSH Key Reuse Endangers Millions of Devices Worldwide” published by SEC Consult, which shows how many hosts, typically home and SOHO routers for internet access, use the same cryptographic keys, which are public and well know, so that anyone can impersonate them and anyone who can intercept their traffic can decrypt it.

Even if the impacts of this vulnerability are probably not very high, it seems extremely difficult to fix, since the new devices will be fixed but the millions already in use will probably never be fixed and will remain active for a few more years.

Even more worrisome is that these are IT devices developed, built and sold by IT companies that should known about IT and IT security. What will happen when billions of devices will be connected to internet (the real IoT) developed, built and sold by non IT companies?

Homomorphic encryption and trusting the Clouds

Homomorphic encryption is an old idea but only in 2009 and the work of Gentry started to have some possible practical applications. Since then there have been quite impressive improvements in the research in this field of cryptography, also due to the need to improve the security of data managed by Cloud systems.

In brief, homomorphic algorithms are cryptographic algorithms that allow to do computations, like sums, multiplications, searches etc., on encrypted data giving encrypted results, without knowing the encryption key.

It should be obvious that these algorithms would be very useful for Clouds’ applications since the owner of the data would be able to use the data remotely by keeping at the same time the data, and the result of the computations, always encrypted in the Cloud application.

Unfortunately homomorphic encryption is not ready yet for general use, but it has just appeared an interesting research paper by Microsoft Reasearch announcing the release of a SEAL (Simple Encryption Arithmetic Library), a library for using homomorphic encryption in bioinformatics, genomic and other research areas.

Cryptography is too risky: should we use something else to secure IT systems?

Obviously the title of this post is provocative, but reading some recent news it is evident that us, IT professionals and IT industry, are not good in managing cryptography. The consequence is that we deploy cryptography in IT products and give a false sense of security to the users. This actually can have worse consequences than if we would not use cryptography at all. I will give just a couple of examples.

This research paper shows how a well-known brand of hard disks has implemented disk encryption in totally faulty ways, to the point that for some disk models hardly any security is provided by the built-in disk encryption functionalities. This is just another of many similar cases, where cryptographic protocols and algorithms are incorrectly implemented so to cancel all or most of the security that they should provide.

Another research paper shows how a well-funded agency or corporation can in practice break the encryption of any data encrypted with the Diffie-Hellmann (DH) key exchange algorithm using keys up to 1024 bits included. Should we be shocked by this news? Not really since already 10 years ago it was known that a key of 1024 bits is too short for DH. Indeed, as per RFC 7525, a 1024 bit DH key offers a security less than a conventional bit security of 80 bits, but again RFC 7525 states that the absolute (legacy) minimum required conventional bit security must be 112 bits, and the current minimum required conventional bit security is 128 bits, that would practically correspond to a 2048 bits DH key. Even if we, IT professionals and IT industry, have known for at least 10 years that 1024 bits DH keys are too short to offer security to the data that they should protect, as of today a too large number of HTTPS websites, VPNs and SSH servers use DH keys of 1024 bits or less (see again the research paper mentioned above).

Unfortunately these are not two isolated examples, recent news are full of similar facts. So I start to wonder if we are good enough to manage cryptography or if we should look into something else to protect IT systems.

On Ashley-Madison passwords crack

The Ashley-Madison story just got more interesting with the news that it has been possible to crack the supposedly well encrypted users’ password. As Ars Technica (among others) reports, the account passwords have been managed with bcrypt, and this makes it practically impossible to decrypt.

But the account passwords have also been used to create tokens related to the user’s sessions. In this case the password has been hashed with the broken algorithm MD5. From the token it is then easy to recover a lowercase version of the password, and with just a few tries, in some cases even as few as 256 iterations, it is possible to recover the exact password from the bcrypt encrypted value.

This is again another confirmation that security is not a feature to add somewhere in our IT systems, but a fundamental component of each part of it. Everyone doing IT must at least be security aware . In this case it would have been enough to use the SHA2 hash algorithm instead of MD5 to prevent the cracking of the passwords.

A new Ransomware kind of attack

This describes a new kind of IT ransom which should be much more professional and profitable.

The attacker manages to access some company’s servers, then encrypts the data in the databases but he modifies the DBs access routines to encrypt/decrypt on the fly all data with his own encryption key. In this way for the company all continues to work. He then waits a few months so that all DB backups are encrypted with his keys and at this point deletes the encryption keys from the company’s systems and asks for a ransom to give it back.Notice that backups are unusable because they too are encrypted with the attacker key.

Obviously, strong IT security procedures should prevent and detect this, from off-line testing of backups to intrusion detection.

On Cryptolocker and the like

Cryptolocker and similar malware are getting more and more common. The latest versions that appeared work on also Android (one id called Simplelocker). In general what they do is to encrypt some or most of the files on your PC, tablet or smartphone, in particular text, sound, images and video files, which of course includes all your music video library.

Been a ransom, you are asked to pay some bitcoins (or similar untraceable currency) to get your files decrypted.The only defense, a part from keeping your PC clean, up-to-date, with good anti- … whatever … and being very careful on what you click and the email you open, is to keep very updated backups. Indeed once you get infected and locked / encrypted, there is absolutely nothing that you can do to decrypt the files (unless of course if you pay).

The only precaution is to have good and recent backups, and start all-over again from scratch.

But there is a very important point to remember here, not all backups are equal! Good backups are only those done on off-line media, like dvd, blu-ray disks, external usb disks that are connected only for the time of making the backup, and so on. In technical term it is often called an air-gapped backup, that is a storage that you cannot usually access from your device. This excludes most of the Clod storage and backup systems!

The reason for this is that if the backup is on a continuously or very often connected device, and the backup is done automatically as soon as new data is on your device, when the ransomware encrypts your file, the encrypted version is automatically copied on the backup device substituting the original data, and you can end up having also the backup data encrypted.

Note Added: Simplelocker is more a proof-of-concept than a real malware, in these two posts [1] and [2] Simon Bell describes the malware and how to decrypt the files.

A New Approach to Quantum Random Number Generators and news on Quantum Cryptography

I am still interested in developements in the area of Quantum phenomena which can be used in ICT and in particular in ICT Security. Recently there have been quite a few announcements of interest. Here are a some of them:

  • A scientific paper proposes on a new way of generating Quantum Random Number, that is ‘real random numbers’ (whatever that means) by using every day technology like the camera of our smart phone; this does not mean that the smart phone camera is enough to produce real random numbers (for the moment you still need a computer to process the data produced by it) but it is a sign that the technology is providing us with tools of unprecedented power, and soon our smart phone will be enough for a good many things;
  • New developments in Quantum Cryptography (se here and here for details) would make it easier to implement Quantum Cryptography in practice; this is nice, even if it does not changes dramatically the current status and relevance of Quantum Cryptography;
  • Another article (see here for a comment) leaves me instead quite puzzled: either I don’t understand it or there is something fundamentally flawed in the argument otherwise it will look like it is possible to obtain quantum effects in classical physics, which is just what it is not.