GCHQ has put simulators for the Enigma, Typex, and Bombe on the Internet.
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GCHQ has put simulators for the Enigma, Typex, and Bombe on the Internet.
In his 2008 white paper that first proposed bitcoin, the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto concluded with: "We have proposed a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust." He was referring to blockchain, the system behind bitcoin cryptocurrency. The circumvention of trust is a great promise, but it's just not true. Yes, bitcoin eliminates certain trusted intermediaries that are inherent in other payment systems like credit cards. But you still have to trust bitcoin -- and everything about it.
Much has been written about blockchains and how they displace, reshape, or eliminate trust. But when you analyze both blockchain and trust, you quickly realize that there is much more hype than value. Blockchain solutions are often much worse than what they replace.
First, a caveat. By blockchain, I mean something very specific: the data structures and protocols that make up a public blockchain. These have three essential elements. The first is a distributed (as in multiple copies) but centralized (as in there's only one) ledger, which is a way of recording what happened and in what order. This ledger is public, meaning that anyone can read it, and immutable, meaning that no one can change what happened in the past.
The second element is the consensus algorithm, which is a way to ensure all the copies of the ledger are the same. This is generally called mining; a critical part of the system is that anyone can participate. It is also distributed, meaning that you don't have to trust any particular node in the consensus network. It can also be extremely expensive, both in data storage and in the energy required to maintain it. Bitcoin has the most expensive consensus algorithm the world has ever seen, by far.
Finally, the third element is the currency. This is some sort of digital token that has value and is publicly traded. Currency is a necessary element of a blockchain to align the incentives of everyone involved. Transactions involving these tokens are stored on the ledger.
Private blockchains are completely uninteresting. (By this, I mean systems that use the blockchain data structure but don't have the above three elements.) In general, they have some external limitation on who can interact with the blockchain and its features. These are not anything new; they're distributed append-only data structures with a list of individuals authorized to add to it. Consensus protocols have been studied in distributed systems for more than 60 years. Append-only data structures have been similarly well covered. They're blockchains in name only, and -- as far as I can tell -- the only reason to operate one is to ride on the blockchain hype.
All three elements of a public blockchain fit together as a single network that offers new security properties. The question is: Is it actually good for anything? It's all a matter of trust.
Trust is essential to society. As a species, humans are wired to trust one another. Society can't function without trust, and the fact that we mostly don't even think about it is a measure of how well trust works.
The word "trust" is loaded with many meanings. There's personal and intimate trust. When we say we trust a friend, we mean that we trust their intentions and know that those intentions will inform their actions. There's also the less intimate, less personal trust -- we might not know someone personally, or know their motivations, but we can trust their future actions. Blockchain enables this sort of trust: We don't know any bitcoin miners, for example, but we trust that they will follow the mining protocol and make the whole system work.
Most blockchain enthusiasts have a unnaturally narrow definition of trust. They're fond of catchphrases like "in code we trust," "in math we trust," and "in crypto we trust." This is trust as verification. But verification isn't the same as trust.
In 2012, I wrote a book about trust and security, Liars and Outliers. In it, I listed four very general systems our species uses to incentivize trustworthy behavior. The first two are morals and reputation. The problem is that they scale only to a certain population size. Primitive systems were good enough for small communities, but larger communities required delegation, and more formalism.
The third is institutions. Institutions have rules and laws that induce people to behave according to the group norm, imposing sanctions on those who do not. In a sense, laws formalize reputation. Finally, the fourth is security systems. These are the wide varieties of security technologies we employ: door locks and tall fences, alarm systems and guards, forensics and audit systems, and so on.
These four elements work together to enable trust. Take banking, for example. Financial institutions, merchants, and individuals are all concerned with their reputations, which prevents theft and fraud. The laws and regulations surrounding every aspect of banking keep everyone in line, including backstops that limit risks in the case of fraud. And there are lots of security systems in place, from anti-counterfeiting technologies to internet-security technologies.
In his 2018 book, Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust, Kevin Werbach outlines four different "trust architectures." The first is peer-to-peer trust. This basically corresponds to my morals and reputational systems: pairs of people who come to trust each other. His second is leviathan trust, which corresponds to institutional trust. You can see this working in our system of contracts, which allows parties that don't trust each other to enter into an agreement because they both trust that a government system will help resolve disputes. His third is intermediary trust. A good example is the credit card system, which allows untrusting buyers and sellers to engage in commerce. His fourth trust architecture is distributed trust. This is emergent trust in the particular security system that is blockchain.
What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they're often single points of failure.
When that trust turns out to be misplaced, there is no recourse. If your bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If your bitcoin wallet gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If you forget your login credentials, you lose all of your money. If there's a bug in the code of your smart contract, you lose all of your money. If someone successfully hacks the blockchain security, you lose all of your money. In many ways, trusting technology is harder than trusting people. Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don't have the expertise to audit?
Blockchain enthusiasts point to more traditional forms of trust -- bank processing fees, for example -- as expensive. But blockchain trust is also costly; the cost is just hidden. For bitcoin, that's the cost of the additional bitcoin mined, the transaction fees, and the enormous environmental waste.
Blockchain doesn't eliminate the need to trust human institutions. There will always be a big gap that can't be addressed by technology alone. People still need to be in charge, and there is always a need for governance outside the system. This is obvious in the ongoing debate about changing the bitcoin block size, or in fixing the DAO attack against Ethereum. There's always a need to override the rules, and there's always a need for the ability to make permanent rules changes. As long as hard forks are a possibility -- that's when the people in charge of a blockchain step outside the system to change it -- people will need to be in charge.
Any blockchain system will have to coexist with other, more conventional systems. Modern banking, for example, is designed to be reversible. Bitcoin is not. That makes it hard to make the two compatible, and the result is often an insecurity. Steve Wozniak was scammed out of $70K in bitcoin because he forgot this.
Blockchain technology is often centralized. Bitcoin might theoretically be based on distributed trust, but in practice, that's just not true. Just about everyone using bitcoin has to trust one of the few available wallets and use one of the few available exchanges. People have to trust the software and the operating systems and the computers everything is running on. And we've seen attacks against wallets and exchanges. We've seen Trojans and phishing and password guessing. Criminals have even used flaws in the system that people use to repair their cell phones to steal bitcoin.
Moreover, in any distributed trust system, there are backdoor methods for centralization to creep back in. With bitcoin, there are only a few miners of consequence. There's one company that provides most of the mining hardware. There are only a few dominant exchanges. To the extent that most people interact with bitcoin, it is through these centralized systems. This also allows for attacks against blockchain-based systems.
These issues are not bugs in current blockchain applications, they're inherent in how blockchain works. Any evaluation of the security of the system has to take the whole socio-technical system into account. Too many blockchain enthusiasts focus on the technology and ignore the rest.
To the extent that people don't use bitcoin, it's because they don't trust bitcoin. That has nothing to do with the cryptography or the protocols. In fact, a system where you can lose your life savings if you forget your key or download a piece of malware is not particularly trustworthy. No amount of explaining how SHA-256 works to prevent double-spending will fix that.
Similarly, to the extent that people do use blockchains, it is because they trust them. People either own bitcoin or not based on reputation; that's true even for speculators who own bitcoin simply because they think it will make them rich quickly. People choose a wallet for their cryptocurrency, and an exchange for their transactions, based on reputation. We even evaluate and trust the cryptography that underpins blockchains based on the algorithms' reputation.
To see how this can fail, look at the various supply-chain security systems that are using blockchain. A blockchain isn't a necessary feature of any of them. The reasons they're successful is that everyone has a single software platform to enter their data in. Even though the blockchain systems are built on distributed trust, people don't necessarily accept that. For example, some companies don't trust the IBM/Maersk system because it's not their blockchain.
Irrational? Maybe, but that's how trust works. It can't be replaced by algorithms and protocols. It's much more social than that.
Still, the idea that blockchains can somehow eliminate the need for trust persists. Recently, I received an email from a company that implemented secure messaging using blockchain. It said, in part: "Using the blockchain, as we have done, has eliminated the need for Trust." This sentiment suggests the writer misunderstands both what blockchain does and how trust works.
Do you need a public blockchain? The answer is almost certainly no. A blockchain probably doesn't solve the security problems you think it solves. The security problems it solves are probably not the ones you have. (Manipulating audit data is probably not your major security risk.) A false trust in blockchain can itself be a security risk. The inefficiencies, especially in scaling, are probably not worth it. I have looked at many blockchain applications, and all of them could achieve the same security properties without using a blockchain -- of course, then they wouldn't have the cool name.
Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They're only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don't like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.
To answer the question of whether the blockchain is needed, ask yourself: Does the blockchain change the system of trust in any meaningful way, or just shift it around? Does it just try to replace trust with verification? Does it strengthen existing trust relationships, or try to go against them? How can trust be abused in the new system, and is this better or worse than the potential abuses in the old system? And lastly: What would your system look like if you didn't use blockchain at all?
If you ask yourself those questions, it's likely you'll choose solutions that don't use public blockchain. And that'll be a good thing -- especially when the hype dissipates.
This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.
I have wanted to write this essay for over a year. The impetus to finally do it came from an invite to speak at the Hyperledger Global Forum in December. This essay is a version of the talk I wrote for that event, made more accessible to a general audience.
It seems to be the season for blockchain takedowns. James Waldo has an excellent essay in Queue. And Nicholas Weaver gave a talk at the Enigma Conference, summarized here. It's a shortened version of this talk.
EDITED TO ADD (2/17): Reddit thread.
Note: Many people e-mailed me to ask why I haven't blogged this yet. One, I was busy with other things. And two, there's nothing I can say that I haven't said many times before.
If there are more good links or commentary, please post them in the comments.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice made a series of legal arguments as to why Facebook should be forced to help the government wiretap Facebook Messenger. Those arguments are still sealed. The ACLU is suing to make them public.
Sotheby's is auctioning off a (working, I think) three-rotor Enigma machine today. They're expecting it to sell for about $200K.
I have an Enigma, but it's missing the rotors.
Earlier this month, I wrote about a statement by the Five Eyes countries about encryption and back doors. (Short summary: they like them.) One of the weird things about the statement is that it was clearly written from a law-enforcement perspective, though we normally think of the Five Eyes as a consortium of intelligence agencies.
Susan Landau examines the details of the statement, explains what's going on, and why the statement is a lot less than what it might seem.
This is interesting research: "On the Security of the PKCS#1 v1.5 Signature Scheme":
Abstract: The RSA PKCS#1 v1.5 signature algorithm is the most widely used digital signature scheme in practice. Its two main strengths are its extreme simplicity, which makes it very easy to implement, and that verification of signatures is significantly faster than for DSA or ECDSA. Despite the huge practical importance of RSA PKCS#1 v1.5 signatures, providing formal evidence for their security based on plausible cryptographic hardness assumptions has turned out to be very difficult. Therefore the most recent version of PKCS#1 (RFC 8017) even recommends a replacement the more complex and less efficient scheme RSA-PSS, as it is provably secure and therefore considered more robust. The main obstacle is that RSA PKCS#1 v1.5 signatures use a deterministic padding scheme, which makes standard proof techniques not applicable.
We introduce a new technique that enables the first security proof for RSA-PKCS#1 v1.5 signatures. We prove full existential unforgeability against adaptive chosen-message attacks (EUF-CMA) under the standard RSA assumption. Furthermore, we give a tight proof under the Phi-Hiding assumption. These proofs are in the random oracle model and the parameters deviate slightly from the standard use, because we require a larger output length of the hash function. However, we also show how RSA-PKCS#1 v1.5 signatures can be instantiated in practice such that our security proofs apply.
In order to draw a more complete picture of the precise security of RSA PKCS#1 v1.5 signatures, we also give security proofs in the standard model, but with respect to weaker attacker models (key-only attacks) and based on known complexity assumptions. The main conclusion of our work is that from a provable security perspective RSA PKCS#1 v1.5 can be safely used, if the output length of the hash function is chosen appropriately.
I don't think the protocol is "provably secure," meaning that it cannot have any vulnerabilities. What this paper demonstrates is that there are no vulnerabilities under the model of the proof. And, more importantly, that PKCS #1 v1.5 is as secure as any of its successors like RSA-PSS and RSA Full-Domain.
Lots of people are e-mailing me about this new result on the distribution of prime numbers. While interesting, it has nothing to do with cryptography. Cryptographers aren't interested in how to find prime numbers, or even in the distribution of prime numbers. Public-key cryptography algorithms like RSA get their security from the difficulty of factoring large composite numbers that are the product of two prime numbers. That's completely different.
NIST has released a new study concluding that the AES encryption standard has resulted in a $250-billion worldwide economic benefit over the past 20 years. I have no idea how to even begin to assess the quality of the study and its conclusions -- it's all in the 150-page report, though -- but I do like the pretty block diagram of AES on the report's cover.
Quantum computing is a new way of computing -- one that could allow humankind to perform computations that are simply impossible using today's computing technologies. It allows for very fast searching, something that would break some of the encryption algorithms we use today. And it allows us to easily factor large numbers, something that would break the RSA cryptosystem for any key length.
This is why cryptographers are hard at work designing and analyzing "quantum-resistant" public-key algorithms. Currently, quantum computing is too nascent for cryptographers to be sure of what is secure and what isn't. But even assuming aliens have developed the technology to its full potential, quantum computing doesn't spell the end of the world for cryptography. Symmetric cryptography is easy to make quantum-resistant, and we're working on quantum-resistant public-key algorithms. If public-key cryptography ends up being a temporary anomaly based on our mathematical knowledge and computational ability, we'll still survive. And if some inconceivable alien technology can break all of cryptography, we still can have secrecy based on information theory -- albeit with significant loss of capability.
At its core, cryptography relies on the mathematical quirk that some things are easier to do than to undo. Just as it's easier to smash a plate than to glue all the pieces back together, it's much easier to multiply two prime numbers together to obtain one large number than it is to factor that large number back into two prime numbers. Asymmetries of this kind -- one-way functions and trap-door one-way functions -- underlie all of cryptography.
To encrypt a message, we combine it with a key to form ciphertext. Without the key, reversing the process is more difficult. Not just a little more difficult, but astronomically more difficult. Modern encryption algorithms are so fast that they can secure your entire hard drive without any noticeable slowdown, but that encryption can't be broken before the heat death of the universe.
With symmetric cryptography -- the kind used to encrypt messages, files, and drives -- that imbalance is exponential, and is amplified as the keys get larger. Adding one bit of key increases the complexity of encryption by less than a percent (I'm hand-waving here) but doubles the cost to break. So a 256-bit key might seem only twice as complex as a 128-bit key, but (with our current knowledge of mathematics) it's 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 times harder to break.
Public-key encryption (used primarily for key exchange) and digital signatures are more complicated. Because they rely on hard mathematical problems like factoring, there are more potential tricks to reverse them. So you'll see key lengths of 2,048 bits for RSA, and 384 bits for algorithms based on elliptic curves. Here again, though, the costs to reverse the algorithms with these key lengths are beyond the current reach of humankind.
This one-wayness is based on our mathematical knowledge. When you hear about a cryptographer "breaking" an algorithm, what happened is that they've found a new trick that makes reversing easier. Cryptographers discover new tricks all the time, which is why we tend to use key lengths that are longer than strictly necessary. This is true for both symmetric and public-key algorithms; we're trying to future-proof them.
Quantum computers promise to upend a lot of this. Because of the way they work, they excel at the sorts of computations necessary to reverse these one-way functions. For symmetric cryptography, this isn't too bad. Grover's algorithm shows that a quantum computer speeds up these attacks to effectively halve the key length. This would mean that a 256-bit key is as strong against a quantum computer as a 128-bit key is against a conventional computer; both are secure for the foreseeable future.
For public-key cryptography, the results are more dire. Shor's algorithm can easily break all of the commonly used public-key algorithms based on both factoring and the discrete logarithm problem. Doubling the key length increases the difficulty to break by a factor of eight. That's not enough of a sustainable edge.
There are a lot of caveats to those two paragraphs, the biggest of which is that quantum computers capable of doing anything like this don't currently exist, and no one knows when -- or even if - we'll be able to build one. We also don't know what sorts of practical difficulties will arise when we try to implement Grover's or Shor's algorithms for anything but toy key sizes. (Error correction on a quantum computer could easily be an unsurmountable problem.) On the other hand, we don't know what other techniques will be discovered once people start working with actual quantum computers. My bet is that we will overcome the engineering challenges, and that there will be many advances and new techniquesbut they're going to take time to discover and invent. Just as it took decades for us to get supercomputers in our pockets, it will take decades to work through all the engineering problems necessary to build large-enough quantum computers.
In the short term, cryptographers are putting considerable effort into designing and analyzing quantum-resistant algorithms, and those are likely to remain secure for decades. This is a necessarily slow process, as both good cryptanalysis transitioning standards take time. Luckily, we have time. Practical quantum computing seems to always remain "ten years in the future," which means no one has any idea.
After that, though, there is always the possibility that those algorithms will fall to aliens with better quantum techniques. I am less worried about symmetric cryptography, where Grover's algorithm is basically an upper limit on quantum improvements, than I am about public-key algorithms based on number theory, which feel more fragile. It's possible that quantum computers will someday break all of them, even those that today are quantum resistant.
If that happens, we will face a world without strong public-key cryptography. That would be a huge blow to security and would break a lot of stuff we currently do, but we could adapt. In the 1980s, Kerberos was an all-symmetric authentication and encryption system. More recently, the GSM cellular standard does both authentication and key distribution -- at scale -- with only symmetric cryptography. Yes, those systems have centralized points of trust and failure, but it's possible to design other systems that use both secret splitting and secret sharing to minimize that risk. (Imagine that a pair of communicants get a piece of their session key from each of five different key servers.) The ubiquity of communications also makes things easier today. We can use out-of-band protocols where, for example, your phone helps you create a key for your computer. We can use in-person registration for added security, maybe at the store where you buy your smartphone or initialize your Internet service. Advances in hardware may also help to secure keys in this world. I'm not trying to design anything here, only to point out that there are many design possibilities. We know that cryptography is all about trust, and we have a lot more techniques to manage trust than we did in the early years of the Internet. Some important properties like forward secrecy will be blunted and far more complex, but as long as symmetric cryptography still works, we'll still have security.
It's a weird future. Maybe the whole idea of number theory-based encryption, which is what our modern public-key systems are, is a temporary detour based on our incomplete model of computing. Now that our model has expanded to include quantum computing, we might end up back to where we were in the late 1970s and early 1980s: symmetric cryptography, code-based cryptography, Merkle hash signatures. That would be both amusing and ironic.
Yes, I know that quantum key distribution is a potential replacement for public-key cryptography. But come on -- does anyone expect a system that requires specialized communications hardware and cables to be useful for anything but niche applications? The future is mobile, always-on, embedded computing devices. Any security for those will necessarily be software only.
There's one more future scenario to consider, one that doesn't require a quantum computer. While there are several mathematical theories that underpin the one-wayness we use in cryptography, proving the validity of those theories is in fact one of the great open problems in computer science. Just as it is possible for a smart cryptographer to find a new trick that makes it easier to break a particular algorithm, we might imagine aliens with sufficient mathematical theory to break all encryption algorithms. To us, today, this is ridiculous. Public- key cryptography is all number theory, and potentially vulnerable to more mathematically inclined aliens. Symmetric cryptography is so much nonlinear muddle, so easy to make more complex, and so easy to increase key length, that this future is unimaginable. Consider an AES variant with a 512-bit block and key size, and 128 rounds. Unless mathematics is fundamentally different than our current understanding, that'll be secure until computers are made of something other than matter and occupy something other than space.
But if the unimaginable happens, that would leave us with cryptography based solely on information theory: one-time pads and their variants. This would be a huge blow to security. One-time pads might be theoretically secure, but in practical terms they are unusable for anything other than specialized niche applications. Today, only crackpots try to build general-use systems based on one-time pads -- and cryptographers laugh at them, because they replace algorithm design problems (easy) with key management and physical security problems (much, much harder). In our alien-ridden science-fiction future, we might have nothing else.
Against these godlike aliens, cryptography will be the only technology we can be sure of. Our nukes might refuse to detonate and our fighter jets might fall out of the sky, but we will still be able to communicate securely using one-time pads. There's an optimism in that.
This essay originally appeared in IEEE Security and Privacy.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.