Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Encryption Security News

NSA Still Ahead In Crypto, But Not By Much 208

Posted by kdawson
from the you-and-whose-army dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Network World summarizes an RSA Conference panel discussion in which former NSA technical director Brian Snow said that cryptographers for the NSA have been losing ground to their counterparts in universities and commercial security vendors for 20 years, but still maintain the upper hand in the sophistication of their crypto schemes and in their ability to decrypt. 'I do believe NSA is still ahead, but not by much — a handful of years,' says Snow. 'I think we've got the edge still.' Snow added that that in the 1980s there was a huge gap between what the NSA could do and what commercial encryption technology was capable of. 'Now we are very close together and moving very slowly forward in a mature field.' The NSA has one key advantage (besides their deep staff of Ph.D. mathematicians and other cryptographic experts who work on securing traffic and breaking codes): 'We cheat. We get to read what [academics] publish. We do not publish what we research,' he said. Snow's claim of NSA superiority seemed to rankle some members on the panel. Adi Shamir, the "S" in the RSA encryption algorithm, said that when the titles of papers in NSA technical journals were declassified up to 1983, none of them included public key encryption; 'That demonstrates that NSA was behind,' said Shamir. Snow replied that when technologies are developed separately in parallel, the developers don't necessarily use the same terms for them."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

NSA Still Ahead In Crypto, But Not By Much

Comments Filter:
  • by timmarhy (659436) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @03:28AM (#31410824)
    what else would you expect from a public servant. he won't admit the private sector has them beat because it'd be the end of his job.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ipquickly (1562169)

      We do not publish what we research

      And they also do not publish what they don't research.
      Or if and when they suffer or do not suffer defeat.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by introspekt.i (1233118)
      I believe the article said he was a Former NSA technical director.
    • by zappepcs (820751) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @03:45AM (#31410906) Journal

      It occurs to me to think that real encryption is not beatable, but workable encryption is. The problem is not who has the best or admits to not having it, it's who has best real encryption that is workable between arbitrary peers. I can easily encrypt a drive that you will NEVER decrypt, but then neither will I be able to. It's the secrecy of the key that is the quest, not the encryption particularly. Hiding the key when it is shared publicly is a problem, will always be a problem, and the race is not necessarily one brain trust against another for the best hiding technique, but rather a race to figure out the best way to hide it for a reasonable amount of time from the most people. The fastest car on the planet is not declared the Indy500 winner, only the car that conforms to the rules of the race is. This race is not winable in the long term, and only valid as a race in the very short term. Don't count on your encrypted hard drive to protect your data from everyone, for all time. That's simply not going to happen.

      • by sopssa (1498795) *

        I don't think hiding the key has been a problem. Public-key cryptography already enables the other key to be publicly known and it doesn't reveal the private key required to encrypt in that. Also if you're using password based key, then obviously you cannot make it public. In the end all of the cryptos are breakable by brute-forcing, it's just about making that part harder. Currently "breaking" the encryption techniques have been mostly about trying to lower the amount of brute-forcing you need to do. The r

        • by bytesex (112972)
          Do you know where your private key is now ? And it's protected by what ?
          • by timmarhy (659436)
            it's protected by a strong passphrase you'd need about 10000000 years to brute force. good enough for you?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bytesex (112972)
        If you're never going to be able to decrypt the data, then you might as well cat /dev/random > /dev/sda. Because it's indistinguishable from random chaos.
      • by afabbro (33948)
        If you encrypt your drive using a one time pad then, yes, it is encrypted and safe for all time and is provably unreadable without someone having the key. Of course, if it's a 1TB drive, then you need a 1TB key, and you can only use it once...
    • by Holmwood (899130) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @04:47AM (#31411156)

      Except he's (more or less) right. James Ellis, at GCHQ (roughly the UK equivalent of NSA) had developed the basics of public key cryptography by the end of 1969. This was about 6 years ahead of Diffie Hellman and Merkle. In 1973, a GCHQ cryptographer, Clifford Cocks, realized that one-way functions would be an elegant way of achieving Ellis' insight. See http://cryptome.org/ukpk-alt.htm [cryptome.org] for example. This was some years ahead of RSA.

      GCHQ and the NSA definitely would have exchanged this information. It's also quite possible that the US made some of these breakthroughs even earlier than the British; I've not paid much attention to anything NSA-related that has declassified in the last 5+ years.

      • Agreed! PK crypto, block ciphers, etc., was in my Elementary Number Theory textbook (1984, Kenneth Rosen). No freakin' way NSA didn't know how to do that before 1983--as he said, if it's not in a title, then they called it something else.

    • by JasterBobaMereel (1102861) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @05:07AM (#31411216)

      Public key encryption, that would be the crypto system invented at GCHQ in the UK by public servants .... but not published and then re-invented (independently) by RSA 6-7 years later ...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by smallfries (601545)

      While it is true that it would not be in his interest to admit if they are beat that does not imply that they are beat. And you would have to be an idiot to believe that they are. To pick up on three points from the video:

      • They employ several hundred PhDs and have a budget that would make any company or university in the sector weep.
      • They can read the literature and take ideas but don't have to reciprocate by publishing their work.
      • They are not handicapped by inconveniences like the law when it comes to exper
  • by WegianWarrior (649800) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @03:35AM (#31410856) Journal

    Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.

  • Whatever! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @03:39AM (#31410876)
    "We know Saddam has WMD, but we can't show you what we know because it's secret!". Everybody knows how that argument went in Iraq.

    I'm with Shamir, the only correct response here is: "Yeah, right, whatever", not "OMGOMGOMG, the NSA cAn readz my stuffz!!1".

    Frankly, I don't see how any mathematician would want to waste his talent working for the NSA.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Exactly. The USA intelligence agencies have shown their moronity and so many occasions. I'm not sure which is their greatest hit: helping traffic cocaine into American cities to fund arms transfers to Iran OR helping Osama Bin Laden build and develop the Al-Qaeda network. The NSA/CIA/FBI might be able to catch child porn wankers and craigslist hookers but the Chinese/Israelis/Indians will eat them for lunch. Go to a computer science dept. anywhere: You will see almost all Phd students are Chinese/Jewish/Ind

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by AHuxley (892839)
        They are all learning from US books under US profs and going back home with US ideas ...
        Its just the old cold war idea of get them young.
        Years later your "Chinese/Jewish/Indian" is going to sit in front of a mutil billion $ contract with a local build %.
        If trained in the US who do you think they will recall fondly ?
        France, Italy, Brazil, Germany, Russia?
        The USA hopes years of quality education will give them that "reality distortion" edge.
        Then when they sign up for a few billions of $ worth of US har
    • by bytesex (112972)

      The problem is, that in his historic recount, he is correct. So there is no reason to disbelieve him when he says things about the current state of affairs.

      Except of course, that he is a spook.

    • Re:Whatever! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by chuckymonkey (1059244) <(charles.d.burton) (at) (gmail.com)> on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @04:53AM (#31411182) Journal

      Let me tell you from firsthand experience. You cannot even fathom the awesomeness that goes on inside the cube unless you work there. It is not like Hollywood portrays it, but there is a whole lot of cool going on in there. That is why people work for the NSA. Now, I have philosophical disagreements with how the NSA ran business during the Bush years and I left that industry for aerospace. That being said if any of my former colleagues tell me that things have changed I think that I would go back.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Sure, I accept that the toys are great, but scientifically? It's time wasted. At some point people are going to ask what did you accomplish?

        If you're a mathematician especially, you'll have nothing to show for it, and if your reports ever get published in the future, they'll be long obsolete and irrelevant.

        • Re:Whatever! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by jpmorgan (517966) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @06:37AM (#31411544) Homepage

          Academia is not the only profession that provides job satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. Guess what, 99.9% of the world's population lives a happy life without ever publishing anything.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by JohnFluxx (413620)

            99.9% of the world's population is, well, the bottom 99.9% of the world. We're talking about the very smartest and most gifted people. The sort that shouldn't be happy if they do not achieve something.

            • Re:Whatever! (Score:4, Insightful)

              by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk@nospaM.gmail.com> on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @09:12AM (#31412330)

              Who says the best always have to get their kicks off with public masturbation? While they may never be able to publish, it is also quite likely they will be exposed to concepts and ideas they never would have had the chance to be exposed to otherwise. I'm sure a very large percentage of these sorts of people are driven by a desire to self-improve.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Arccot (1115809)

              99.9% of the world's population is, well, the bottom 99.9% of the world. We're talking about the very smartest and most gifted people. The sort that shouldn't be happy if they do not achieve something.

              You are confusing genius with ambition. Not all geniuses want to take over the world. Some just want to lead a happy life.

          • by styryx (952942)

            > Guess what, 99.9% of the world's population lives a happy life without ever publishing anything.

            Citation needed.

        • Sure, I accept that the toys are great, but scientifically? It's time wasted. At some point people are going to ask what did you accomplish?

          If you're a mathematician especially, you'll have nothing to show for it, and if your reports ever get published in the future, they'll be long obsolete and irrelevant.

          Who cares? You're getting paid to do what you love and are provided with all the toys you can think of to do that stuff with. If I was a mathematician, I wouldn't really consider that sort of job to be unfulfilling. (Ethical and moral dilemmas are another matter.)

        • by timmarhy (659436)
          thats because if your a mathematician. the ONLY thing you can do that would seem like much of an acomplishment is publish a scrape of paper.

          for people working in the real world, they can achieve real world outcomes (god i'm damned to management aren't I?).

        • by Kjella (173770)

          At some point people are going to ask what did you accomplish?
          If you're a mathematician especially, you'll have nothing to show for it

          "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you afterwards". And to be honest, I doubt anyone with "Mathematician, NSA" on their CV will ever have trouble finding work. Lots of others with science degrees work for private research, you'll just be another one of those.

        • by Bakkster (1529253)

          If you're a mathematician especially, you'll have nothing to show for it

          So you can't brag to your friends, you can still feel quite fulfilled knowing that your work is not only important, American (or your home nation, for other intelligence agencies) lives may be saved by your hard work.

          Furthering science isn't the only way a scientist, engineer, or mathemetician can feel fulfilled.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by elrous0 (869638) *

            lives may be saved by your hard work.

            Considering the way the NSA has behaved in the last 9 years, I'd say it was way more likely that your work would be used to spy on innocent Americans, prop up phony wars, gather dirt on Administration political opponents, etc.

            • Re:Whatever! (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster...man@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @10:39AM (#31413422)

              lives may be saved by your hard work.

              Considering the way the NSA has behaved in the last 9 years

              You mean, considering the reports we have heard. There's a pretty obvious selection bias, in that only the illegal activities (which there certainly are, sanctioned or otherwise) will be notable enough to publish and publicize. I highly doubt that illegal activities accounted for more than 1% of work performed by the NSA (again, including both sanctioned and unsanctioned activities), let alone 51% for cryptologic work to be 'more likely' to be used illegaly.

      • You cannot even fathom the awesomeness that goes on inside the cube ...there is a whole lot of cool going on in there

        But not, apparently, a lot of grown up usage of the English language.

        Some people like knowing things that other people don't know and having secrets. Some people like adding to the store of human knowledge, and knowing that they have left the world a slightly better informed or capable place. Personally, I know from experience which type I prefer to work with, and it's not the "I'm a member o

    • by c6gunner (950153)

      "We know Saddam has WMD, but we can't show you what we know because it's secret!". Everybody knows how that argument went in Iraq.

      We do?

      They did show us what they knew. It just turned out to be crap. Did you really need to venture into historical revisionism in order to support your point?

  • Until a working quantum computer is made.
    • Go get your quantum computer - NSA will just build a 10 bazillion node cluster of them.

      They will just brute force your solution into the mud if it comes to that.

    • [D]irector Brian Snow said that cryptographers for the NSA have been losing ground to their counterparts in universities and commercial security vendors for 20 years.

      Until a working quantum computer is made.

      That's just what they want you to think. Secretly, they already have a quantum computer that can decrypt anything near-instantly. They call it TRANSLTR. Okay, maybe not, but it would make a great Dan Brown novel [wikipedia.org].

  • by jpmorgan (517966) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @03:40AM (#31410884) Homepage

    I don't think so... public key cryptography was discovered by the GCHQ at least a decade before it was discovered in the public sphere: http://cryptome.org/ukpk-alt.htm [cryptome.org]

  • by introspekt.i (1233118) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @03:46AM (#31410912)
    Crypto's not the weak link in security anymore, nor has it been for a long time. I think the real security money now is in automated (or proven) software verification and model checking. Private industry is only beginning to understand this, and as a whole, probably will not employ it for some time to come. Why bother testing for security errors when you can prove they don't exist?
    • by phantomfive (622387) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @04:01AM (#31410972) Journal

      Crypto's not the weak link in security anymore

      That's what you think.

    • by bytesex (112972) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @04:32AM (#31411094) Homepage

      Nah. The money is now in electromagnetic remote sensing; reading your screen and listening to your keyboard from a mile away. That, and psy-ops. Humans still control keys. Humans always make at least one mistake. Google's mail accounts were cracked because their subjects could be coaxed to visit malicious websites, after all.

    • by dcollins (135727)

      "I think the real security money now is in automated (or proven) software verification and model checking. Private industry is only beginning to understand this, and as a whole, probably will not employ it for some time to come. Why bother testing for security errors when you can prove they don't exist?"

      Yeah, we were laughing about this in my college CS classes 20 years ago. So the drunken party's back again, eh?

      • by TheLink (130905)
        > > I think the real security money now is in automated (or proven) software verification and model checking.
        > > Why bother testing for security errors when you can prove they don't exist?"
        > Yeah, we were laughing about this in my college CS classes 20 years ago. So the drunken party's back again, eh?

        Yeah, why bother testing his slashdot post for errors if he can prove (via "post verification and checking") that his post on Slashdot was exactly what he wanted to post?

        Software verification has
    • Crypto's not the weak link in security anymore

      When I read other people's crypto code, I still find they get it wrong the majority of the time.

  • The NSA may not have had RSA, but GCHQ did - and they developed it years before R, S and A.

  • NSA vs. PUBLIC (Score:5, Insightful)

    by muckracer (1204794) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @07:42AM (#31411818)

    > cryptographers for the NSA have been losing ground to their
    > counterparts in universities and commercial security vendors for
    > 20 years, but still maintain the upper hand in the sophistication
    > of their crypto schemes and in their ability to decrypt.

    Nevermind the intellectual "my code's better than yours" games
    between arguably otherwise brilliant researchers.

    Where the NSA certainly has 'maintained the upper hand' is in real
    life versus ordinary people. The technology of surveillance has
    gotten orders of a magnitude better and surrounding laws have been
    adapted to make it fully legal to use that technology to the max
    against The People (whereever they may be). Who in this discussion
    encrypts their e-mails or uses 'sophisticated crypto schemes' as a
    matter of course? At best it's maybe SSH here and there and the
    occasional SSL site. The vast majority of traffic is plain-text, as
    it's been since the days of papyrus. Hell, back in those days at
    least only a few people could read it and thus had better privacy
    than we mostly have today. Nevermind the ramifications of Facebook
    and similar tools.

    Mr. Shamir can engage in discussions of who developed Public Key
    Cryptography first or not. It's all nonsense, because as brilliant
    as the concept is, the PUBLIC has no part in it to 99.99% and
    therefore we can consider it a complete FAILURE on grounds of lack
    of acceptance and widespread use. Meanwhile the NSA sits back and
    laughs, as their electronic tentacles filter through PUBLIC('s)
    traffic...any traffic...and mostly doesn't have to bother with
    breaking anything. Cuz we 'oh-so-clever' geeks have failed
    miserably. If the NSA has any problem, then it's to store and
    process/search through the data they get...not the acquisition.

    • by gazbo (517111) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @07:56AM (#31411880)
      THANK YOU!

      I'm never happy with the way my browser handles line-breaking, so I'm eternally grateful to you for taking the initiative and doing it yourself.

      • > I'm never happy with the way my browser handles line-breaking, so I'm
        > eternally grateful to you for taking the initiative and doing it yourself.

        More a result of using an external editor. And even though I have a feeling you
        were being ironic, I DO find it easier to read with a normal line-length, as
        opposed to reading across the whole damn (wide)screen. ;-)

        • And even though I have a feeling you were being ironic, I DO find it easier to read with a normal line-length, as opposed to reading across the whole damn (wide)screen. ;-)

          A friendly suggestion: with flowed content such as html you should never impose linebreaks for non-formatting purposes, i.e. you could use them with code or poems. Otherwise one line equals one paragraph. Your editor can surely soft-wrap the display while retaining proper flow in the text.

          The browser handles the flowing, if you prefer sh

          • OK, thanx for the tip. Shall now use:

            ":set wrap linebreak textwidth=0"

            This will soft-wrap the lines.
            The written text will still go to the end of the editor/display though. Haven't yet found a way to limit the line length (say, 70 characters) for easy reading, yet still have it only soft-wrapped for final posting to /..

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by EmagGeek (574360)

      That's absolutely true. In addition to brute-force decryption and other methods, the NSA has discovered what scammers have known all along. You don't need to decrypt someone's stuff if they'll give you the keys themselves. It's easier to compromise someone's box and keylog their keys than it is to decrupt the information by force.

      The NSA spends a tremendous amount of effort on social engineering and subversive key acquisition. Those methods are much faster and easier.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      If the NSA has any problem, then it's to store and process/search through the data they get...not the acquisition.

      Well that, and interagency cooperation, which the Department of Homeland Security was designed to fix. Instead, it now pursues its own agenda and has proven counterproductive towards those ends. The value of intelligence is not in whether or not you can acquire the information, but whether you can do so in a timely and reliable fashion, and have the resources to analyze it to determine trends, form conclusions, and execute decisions in a timely manner. Intelligence operations don't have a defined start and

  • by 3waygeek (58990) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @08:12AM (#31411934)

    In truth, the NSA is hundreds of years [milk.com] ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to cryptography.

  • by AusIV (950840) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @09:46AM (#31412680)

    'We cheat. We get to read what [academics] publish. We do not publish what we research,'

    That's all well and good for cryptanalysis, which is more or less provable, but for new encryption algorithms the more eyes you have looking at your algorithm the more certain you can be of its strengths. Not letting people look at your encryption algorithms seems to be relying on security through obscurity.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ServerIrv (840609)

      'We cheat. We get to read what [academics] publish. We do not publish what we research,'

      That's all well and good for cryptanalysis, which is more or less provable, but for new encryption algorithms the more eyes you have looking at your algorithm the more certain you can be of its strengths. Not letting people look at your encryption algorithms seems to be relying on security through obscurity.

      It isn't about security through obscurity. They are cheating because they get ideas from the academics but don't have to return the favor. It becomes a pull relationship and ignores the push.

      Think of it this way (with made up stats), NSA has 40% of all available industry resources and ideas, while the academics have the remaining 60%. So, while the NSA only has 40% but gets to view 100%, while academics have 60% but are stuck at 60%. If you use your position of power to use all available resources, even

  • by Hurricane78 (562437) <deleted&slashdot,org> on Tuesday March 09, 2010 @11:12AM (#31413860)

    Original quote:

    'I do believe NSA is still ahead, but not by much -- a handful of years,' says Snow. 'I think we've got the edge still.'

    Slashdot headline:

    NSA Still Ahead In Crypto, But Not By Much

    Sorry, Snow. But someone “thinking” that something is that way, has nothing to do with what it actually is.
    There are people out there who still “think” that earth is flat, the sun revolves around it, and that there is a bearded man in the sky.

    Then again, if you follow the money/power, you realize quickly, why that empty and pointless quote gets thrown around the Internet...
    Yeees NSA... you’re still the best... mama still loves you... really! *pat-pat* ;)

    I wish that NO agency of any country is “ahead” in crypto. It’s like saying that Jack the Ripper is still ahead of the police. Not a world you want to live in.

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman? -- Woody Allen

Working...