#RSAC: Crypto-Extravaganza! Panel Slams Front Doors, Ransomware and Snowden

Inherently linked to privacy and surveillance, cryptography’s intertwining with government headlined the discussion at a panel at RSA 2015, where four famous cryptographists took the stage to talk government front doors, Snowden, ransomware and the future of their craft.

The Cryptographers' Panel most interestingly gave an airing to key escrow schemes, which offer government a path to gaining access to encrypted data, provided that law enforcement, the NSA or other agencies satisfy the requirements for doing so (i.e., via warrants, FISA court rulings and so on). Proponents say that it represents a “front door” way to access information—i.e., a known-quantity, more transparent way than the alleged backdoors into technology companies like Google that Edward Snowden said existed for that purpose.

The panelists gave the idea a resounding thumbs down. For instance, Ron Rivest, an MIT professor and co-creator of the RSA encryption algorithm (he’s the ‘R’ in the name) pointed out that agreeing to such a scheme is a slippery slope.

“Key escrow and front doors make plain text available to law enforcement. It’s a house of doors kind of vision,” said Rivest. “If you set it up so that the U.S. government has a door into your private data, the reality is that it won’t just be the U.S. that wants access to it. It will be UK, China, Israel…you end up with a house of many doors with many keys held by many people—and it’s just not going to work.”

Adi Shamir, a professor at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and also an RSA co-creator (he’s the ‘S’), said that the terminology is merely spin. “There’s no difference between a back door and a front door,” he said. “It’s just that the NSA will have to take your house and turn it around.”

The discussion comes against the backdrop of just how much the Snowden revelations have changed the conversation on how much power to give the NSA and others.

“Snowden showed us the potential for too much collective damage [from surveillance],” Shamir said. “Take the break-in to Gemalto—just to take a big cache of millions of SIM card keys for use later if they need it. That’s totally not targeted, and it’s an excessive use of force.”

Ed DiGiorgio, who has been both the NSA’s chief of encryption and its top encryption breaker, noted that if we follow the money, it’s clear just how much the government is focused on gaining access to information rather than to the protection of it.

“When we look at the NSA and the investment of resources into code-making and code-breaking, it’s worth noting that we were a group of 17 code-makers,” said DiGiorgio. “That’s compared to the group of 1,700 code-breakers that I was in. At the GCHQ, I saw the same ratio there. And back in the Bletchley Park days, the ratio was there as well. And yet all know that code-making is very important; we rely on it for our IT systems.”

DiGiorgio also noted that the mandate for information-sharing passed down from the Obama Administration runs counter to the need to build walls and compartmentalize everything in the wake of Snowden, and to keep the need-to-know groups very small. “It’s a price we’ve had to pay on info-sharing.”

The participants agreed that a fundamental question that has yet to be answered is how we as a society should address the Snowden revelations—despite efforts of the administration to balance national security and privacy. “Power corrupts,” said Rivest. “So we need to ask, what do we really need in the way of surveillance and how can we balance that against the needs of society.”

The panel also talked about the down side of what they do. Take, for instance, ransomware—a crypto-based baddie that Rivest likens to a wayward child. “The tech of crypto is mostly to the good. But it’s a dual-use technology that has a downside,” he said. “I feel like the mother whose son has been brainwashed and is now off in Syria somewhere.”

Ransomware is escalating in danger as the internet of things (IoT) era continues to ramp up as well. In the future, when all devices are connected to the network, new things are targeted.  “Think about your TV being ransomwared, and you have to pay someone in Moldavia to get your programming back,” Shamir said. “It’s the one area where our community failed in a particularly miserable way.”

Cryptocurrency is another potentially misappropriated use of crypto. When it comes to Bitcoin, “the problem with this community is that they haven’t decided, are they anarchist rebels, or a legitimate currency,” said Shamir. “Some resist any control, so crime is prevalent. So I think it’s not quite ready for primetime thanks to this dual personality. If they want to replace some of the world’s currencies, then they need to change their behavior and agree to regulation.”

Panelist Whitfield Diffie, who pioneered public-key encryption, pithily added, “Bitcoin is a lot like the US, which hasn’t decided in 200 years if it’s a revolutionary or an imperial power.”

As for how cryptography can help to better address the threat landscape, the EMV standard, which will convert credit card payment mechanisms to chip and PIN, is a welcome addition to the field. “EMV is a nice visible thing that we can do in a year of embarrassment,” Diffie said.

However, it’s not a panacea. “EMV does reduce fraud—but like a balloon, when you push at it, the air goes to the other side,” said Shamir. “Financial fraud doesn’t disappear with EMV, it transforms. Take Apple Pay—giving it your credentials is a vulnerability that’s being rumored at the moment. So EMV solves payment fraud but don’t expect that it will solve everything.”

He also pointed out that the three laws of security that he postulated in the 1980s are all still very valid today. “Secure systems do not exist today and will never exist in future, that’s one,” he said. “Crypto will not be broken, it will be bypassed. And the third is that if you want invulnerability, [you have to spend infinite amounts to get it].”

Rivest added that the adoption of EMV in the United States could have further repercussions. “Merchants that don’t adopt chip-and-PIN will soon become liable for fraudulent transactions. The interesting thing is, if not following cryptographic best practices in other areas, should you become liable?”

As for what the future holds, there are areas where increased encryption will become a central point of discussion, according to Diffie.

“People like to talk about avoiding Maginot lines and things like that, and the ecology that we have today is dynamic, be it scanning the internet and finding malware to perhaps actively counter-attacking, to dynamic management of patches,” he said. “I think a more static and defensive posture has been underfunded and underrated. The mess we have now may not be as bad if we had invested more in a defensive posture.”

And that means encrypting all traffic. It’s a good idea to do so particularly as the move to the cloud and multilayered security approaches increase the number of stakeholders with access to the network.

“Everyone wants to secure your system, and you have to transfer a lot of trust to these people with no way of knowing or auditing what they’re doing,” Diffie said. “Companies want you to be secure—but not against them. There are fundamental conflicts between network businesses and their customers. The privileges they demand to have in your system can be used as gateways by people you don’t want to have access.” 

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