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.
The UK's GCHQ delivers a brutally blunt assessment of quantum key distribution:
QKD protocols address only the problem of agreeing keys for encrypting data. Ubiquitous on-demand modern services (such as verifying identities and data integrity, establishing network sessions, providing access control, and automatic software updates) rely more on authentication and integrity mechanisms -- such as digital signatures -- than on encryption.
QKD technology cannot replace the flexible authentication mechanisms provided by contemporary public key signatures. QKD also seems unsuitable for some of the grand future challenges such as securing the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, social media, or cloud applications.
I agree with them. It's a clever idea, but basically useless in practice. I don't even think it's anything more than a niche solution in a world where quantum computers have broken our traditional public-key algorithms.
In some implementations, the elliptic curve parameters are not all validated by the cryptographic algorithm implementation, which may allow a remote attacker within wireless range to inject an invalid public key to determine the session key with high probability. Such an attacker can then passively intercept and decrypt all device messages, and/or forge and inject malicious messages.
Interestingresearch in using traffic analysis to learn things about encrypted traffic. It's hard to know how critical these vulnerabilities are. They're very hard to close without wasting a huge amount of bandwidth.
IEEE supports the use of unfettered strong encryption to protect confidentiality and integrity of data and communications. We oppose efforts by governments to restrict the use of strong encryption and/or to mandate exceptional access mechanisms such as "backdoors" or "key escrow schemes" in order to facilitate government access to encrypted data. Governments have legitimate law enforcement and national security interests. IEEE believes that mandating the intentional creation of backdoors or escrow schemes -- no matter how well intentioned -- does not serve those interests well and will lead to the creation of vulnerabilities that would result in unforeseen effects as well as some predictable negative consequences
Last week, a story was going around explaining how to brute-force an iOS password. Basically, the trick was to plug the phone into an external keyboard and trying every PIN at once:
We reported Friday on Hickey's findings, which claimed to be able to send all combinations of a user's possible passcode in one go, by enumerating each code from 0000 to 9999, and concatenating the results in one string with no spaces. He explained that because this doesn't give the software any breaks, the keyboard input routine takes priority over the device's data-erasing feature.
I didn't write about it, because it seemed too good to be true. A few days later, Apple pushed back on the findings -- and it seems that it doesn't work.
This isn't to say that no one can break into an iPhone. We know that companies like Cellebrite and Grayshift are renting/selling iPhone unlock tools to law enforcement -- which means governments and criminals can do the same thing -- and that Apple is releasing a newfeature called "restricted mode" that may make those hacks obsolete.
Grayshift is claiming that its technology will still work.
Former Apple security engineer Braden Thomas, who now works for a company called Grayshift, warned customers who had bought his GrayKey iPhone unlocking tool that iOS 11.3 would make it a bit harder for cops to get evidence and data out of seized iPhones. A change in the beta didn't break GrayKey, but would require cops to use GrayKey on phones within a week of them being last unlocked.
"Starting with iOS 11.3, iOS saves the last time a device has been unlocked (either with biometrics or passcode) or was connected to an accessory or computer. If a full seven days (168 hours) elapse [sic] since the last time iOS saved one of these events, the Lightning port is entirely disabled," Thomas wrote in a blog post published in a customer-only portal, which Motherboard obtained. "You cannot use it to sync or to connect to accessories. It is basically just a charging port at this point. This is termed USB Restricted Mode and it affects all devices that support iOS 11.3."
Last week, researchersdisclosed vulnerabilities in a large number of encrypted e-mail clients: specifically, those that use OpenPGP and S/MIME, including Thunderbird and AppleMail. These are seriousvulnerabilities: An attacker who can alter mail sent to a vulnerable client can trick that client into sending a copy of the plaintext to a web server controlled by that attacker. The story of these vulnerabilities and the tale of how they were disclosed illustrate some important lessons about security vulnerabilities in general and e-mail security in particular.
But first, if you use PGP or S/MIME to encrypt e-mail, you need to check the list on this page and see if you are vulnerable. If you are, check with the vendor to see if they've fixed the vulnerability. (Note that some early patches turned out not to fix the vulnerability.) If not, stop using the encrypted e-mail program entirely until it's fixed. Or, if you know how to do it, turn off your e-mail client's ability to process HTML e-mail or -- even better -- stop decrypting e-mails from within the client. There's even more complex advice for more sophisticated users, but if you're one of those, you don't need me to explain this to you.
Consider your encrypted e-mail insecure until this is fixed.
All software contains security vulnerabilities, and one of the primary ways we all improve our security is by researchers discovering those vulnerabilities and vendors patching them. It's a weird system: Corporate researchers are motivated by publicity, academic researchers by publication credentials, and just about everyone by individual fame and the small bug-bounties paid by some vendors.
Software vendors, on the other hand, are motivated to fix vulnerabilities by the threat of public disclosure. Without the threat of eventual publication, vendors are likely to ignore researchers and delay patching. This happened a lot in the 1990s, and even today, vendors often use legal tactics to try to block publication. It makes sense; they look bad when their products are pronounced insecure.
Over the past few years, researchers have started to choreograph vulnerability announcements to make a big press splash. Clever names -- the e-mail vulnerability is called "Efail" -- websites, and cute logos are now common. Key reporters are given advance information about the vulnerabilities. Sometimes advance teasers are released. Vendors are now part of this process, trying to announce their patches at the same time the vulnerabilities are announced.
This simultaneous announcement is best for security. While it's always possible that some organization -- either government or criminal -- has independently discovered and is using the vulnerability before the researchers go public, use of the vulnerability is essentially guaranteed after the announcement. The time period between announcement and patching is the most dangerous, and everyone except would-be attackers wants to minimize it.
Things get much more complicated when multiple vendors are involved. In this case, Efail isn't a vulnerability in a particular product; it's a vulnerability in a standard that is used in dozens of different products. As such, the researchers had to ensure both that everyone knew about the vulnerability in time to fix it and that no one leaked the vulnerability to the public during that time. As you can imagine, that's close to impossible.
Efail was discovered sometime last year, and the researchers alerted dozens of different companies between last October and March. Some companies took the news more seriously than others. Most patched. Amazingly, news about the vulnerability didn't leak until the day before the scheduled announcement date. Two days before the scheduled release, the researchers unveiled a teaser -- honestly, a really bad idea -- which resulted in details leaking.
All of this speaks to the difficulty of coordinating vulnerability disclosure when it involves a large number of companies or -- even more problematic -- communities without clear ownership. And that's what we have with OpenPGP. It's even worse when the bug involves the interaction between different parts of a system. In this case, there's nothing wrong with PGP or S/MIME in and of themselves. Rather, the vulnerability occurs because of the way many e-mail programs handle encrypted e-mail. GnuPG, an implementation of OpenPGP, decided that the bug wasn't its fault and did nothing about it. This is arguably true, but irrelevant. They should fix it.
Expect more of these kinds of problems in the future. The Internet is shifting from a set of systems we deliberately use -- our phones and computers -- to a fully immersive Internet-of-things world that we live in 24/7. And like this e-mail vulnerability, vulnerabilities will emerge through the interactions of different systems. Sometimes it will be obvious who should fix the problem. Sometimes it won't be. Sometimes it'll be two secure systems that, when they interact in a particular way, cause an insecurity. In April, I wrote about a vulnerability that arose because Google and Netflix make different assumptions about e-mail addresses. I don't even know who to blame for that one.
It gets even worse. Our system of disclosure and patching assumes that vendors have the expertise and ability to patch their systems, but that simply isn't true for many of the embedded and low-cost Internet of things software packages. They're designed at a much lower cost, often by offshore teams that come together, create the software, and then disband; as a result, there simply isn't anyone left around to receive vulnerability alerts from researchers and write patches. Even worse, many of these devices aren't patchable at all. Right now, if you own a digital video recorder that's vulnerable to being recruited for a botnet -- remember Mirai from 2016? -- the only way to patch it is to throw it away and buy a new one.
Patching is starting to fail, which means that we're losing the best mechanism we have for improving software security at exactly the same time that software is gaining autonomy and physical agency. Many researchers and organizations, including myself, have proposed government regulations enforcing minimal security standards for Internet-of-things devices, including standards around vulnerability disclosure and patching. This would be expensive, but it's hard to see any other viable alternative.
Getting back to e-mail, the truth is that it's incredibly difficult to secure well. Not because the cryptography is hard, but because we expect e-mail to do so many things. We use it for correspondence, for conversations, for scheduling, and for record-keeping. I regularly search my 20-year e-mail archive. The PGP and S/MIME security protocols are outdated, needlessly complicated and have been difficult to properly use the whole time. If we could start again, we would design something better and more user friendlybut the huge number of legacy applications that use the existing standards mean that we can't. I tell people that if they want to communicate securely with someone, to use one of the secure messaging systems: Signal, Off-the-Record, or -- if having one of those two on your system is itself suspicious -- WhatsApp. Of course they're not perfect, as last week's announcement of a vulnerability (patched within hours) in Signal illustrates. And they're not as flexible as e-mail, but that makes them easier to secure.
A new PGP vulnerability was announced today. Basically, the vulnerability makes use of the fact that modern e-mail programs allow for embedded HTML objects. Essentially, if an attacker can intercept and modify a message in transit, he can insert code that sends the plaintext in a URL to a remote website. Very clever.
The EFAIL attacks exploit vulnerabilities in the OpenPGP and S/MIME standards to reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails. In a nutshell, EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs. To create these exfiltration channels, the attacker first needs access to the encrypted emails, for example, by eavesdropping on network traffic, compromising email accounts, email servers, backup systems or client computers. The emails could even have been collected years ago.
The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim. The victim's email client decrypts the email and loads any external content, thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker.
A few initial comments:
1. Being able to intercept and modify e-mails in transit is the sort of thing the NSA can do, but is hard for the average hacker. That being said, there are circumstances where someone can modify e-mails. I don't mean to minimize the seriousness of this attack, but that is a consideration.
2. The vulnerability isn't with PGP or S/MIME itself, but in the way they interact with modern e-mail programs. You can see this in the two suggested short-term mitigations: "No decryption in the e-mail client," and "disable HTML rendering."
3. I've been getting some weird press calls from reporters wanting to know if this demonstrates that e-mail encryption is impossible. No, this just demonstrates that programmers are human and vulnerabilities are inevitable. PGP almost certainly has fewer bugs than your average piece of software, but it's not bug free.
3. Why is anyone using encrypted e-mail anymore, anyway? Reliably and easily encrypting e-mail is an insurmountably hard problem for reasons having nothing to do with today's announcement. If you need to communicate securely, use Signal. If having Signal on your phone will arouse suspicion, use WhatsApp.
I'll post other commentaries and analyses as I find them.