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September 18, 2008

Dangers of amateur cryptography

Filed under: Crypto,Security — Nate Lawson @ 1:08 pm

This math blog has begun a series of articles on cryptography.  While that blog had some good articles on mathematics, it was pretty clear the cryptography series would have some issues.  Whenever I read articles about engineers picking up cryptography, warning sirens go off in my head.

When the first article on block ciphers stated incorrectly that the DES initial/final permutations were to prevent brute force attacks, I posted a correction.  I also noted that if he’s going to write about how to do cryptography, it would be good to provide a disclaimer.

I like your blog overall, but this series on crypto is a bit dangerous for amateurs. The devil is in the details, and it’s very easy to make a critical mistake. So while it’s good to give people an intro, I suggest a big warning letting them know that there are some dangerous assumptions lurking below the surface, and that they should always use well-reviewed implementations and protocols (i.e. SSL) rather than rolling their own for pure ego reasons.

The next article on modes of operation for block ciphers had a completely incorrect description of counter mode.  John Kelsey pointed out other issues with this article.  I again requested that Mark use this as a good example how it is hard to get crypto right.

After that, he posted a correction to the description of counter mode.  Unfortunately, his correction was wrong also as another reader and I pointed out.

I am not picking on Mark.  He’s a smart person.  However, it’s important that we pay attention to how hard it is to get cryptography right.  I write about crypto here as well, often getting friends to review articles to be sure there aren’t issues with my description.  I hope my articles have never given the idea that crypto is easy.  When someone focuses on the primitives, like block ciphers, even a correct description can give the reader the false impression that using block ciphers is straightforward.  The book Applied Cryptography, with its nice but simple descriptions, created a generation of engineers with this misconception.

The articles and comments on them are vaguely reminiscent of the “rainbow tables” fiasco.  Even a well-written, detailed description of password hashing with a big disclaimer attached still resulted in dozens of engineers proposing flawed solutions of their own.  When will we learn?

September 15, 2008

MD5 considered primeval

Filed under: Crypto,Security — Nate Lawson @ 7:00 pm

The SF Chronicle talked to me last week about a forensic tool that uses MD5 to ensure its evidence has not been tampered with after collection.

Cellebrite’s Ofrat said that despite the theoretical possibility of hacks to MD5, the likelihood is low. “You’d have to have the best hacker in the world,” he said. But his firm is studying SHA-256 and will move to that if it becomes an industry standard, he said.

I appreciate his humble acknowledgement that anyone who can run a software tool is now “the best hacker in the world”. But perhaps they should move to more secure hash functions like SHA-256 anyway.  After all, other forensic software has moved to SHA-256 since at least 2003 after the US government (NIST) standardized on it in 2002.  Is that standard enough for Cellebrite?

September 14, 2008

Next Baysec: September 18th at Pete’s Tavern

Filed under: Security — Nate Lawson @ 2:46 pm

The next Baysec meeting is this Thursday at Pete’s Tavern. Come out and meet fellow security people from all over the Bay Area.  As always, this is not a sponsored meeting, there is no agenda or speakers, and no RSVP is needed.  Thanks go to Ryan Russell for planning all this.

See you September 18th, 7-11 pm.

Pete’s Tavern
128 King St. (at 2nd)
San Francisco

September 9, 2008

FTC workshop on RFID

Filed under: RFID,Security — Nate Lawson @ 9:17 am

If you’re in Washington, DC on September 23, check out this workshop on RFID.  It aims to explore the security and privacy ramifications.

Workshop participants will discuss the increasing prevalence of contactless payment devices in everyday consumer transactions, including credit card purchases and public transit.  Panelists will further discuss the growing utilization of item-level tagging in the retail sector.  The workshop will explore security and privacy threats and proposed solutions, as well as consumer awareness and education initiatives regarding these developments.

I’ve never attended one of these workshops but one phrase is troubling.  The focus on “consumer awareness and education” seems to represent an attitude that the only problem with RFID is PR.  I doubt any of the security or privacy problems with RFID can be solved by user education.  Transcripts of the last workshop the FTC held on this subject can be found here.

The event will be webcast if you can’t make it and comments can be submitted until October 23.

September 7, 2008

Xbox 360 security talk

Filed under: Crypto,Embedded,Hacking,Hardware,Security,Software protection — Nate Lawson @ 2:56 pm

This recent video of Michael Steil and Felix Domke talking about the Xbox 360 security scheme is the best overview I’ve seen so far.

Michael previously gave a nice talk summarizing the security flaws in the original Xbox.

The CPU itself supports hashing and/or encryption of physical pages, based on flags set in the upper word of the 64-bit virtual address.  They talk about how Felix was able to leapfrog off shader-based DMA to write to an unencrypted register save state structure, jumping through a syscall gate (sorta like return-to-libc) that was improperly validated by the hypervisor.  The end result was arbitrary code execution in the context of the hypervisor.  Quite impressive.

I’ve always wondered how different security features like encrypted RAM that have long been present in smart cards would take to “trickle-up” to the more complex platforms like game consoles.  While the Xbox 360 security is much better than the original Xbox, it seems like the big-systems people are reinventing techniques already tested and worked out in the microcontroller world.

For example, the 360 was vulnerable to a timing attack, where an internal secret key can be guessed by timing how long it takes to validate the submitter’s HMAC.  I’d be extremely surprised if any mainstream smart card were vulnerable to such a well-known legacy bug.

I have yet to see anyone publish information about applying power or RF-based side channel analysis to a game console, despite smart cards adding countermeasures to these almost 10 years ago.  Even earlier attacks on encrypted RAM have still not been attempted on modern systems.

These attacks probably haven’t been needed yet since software bugs were still present. However, the push by game consoles and cellphone manufacturers to increase their resistance to software attacks means it won’t be long before side-channel resistance becomes a must-have feature.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes big-system manufacturers to add countermeasures and whether they’ll choose to learn from the hard lessons we have seen in the smart card world.

September 4, 2008

What probably happened with Mythbusters and RFID

Filed under: Embedded,Hacking,Security — Nate Lawson @ 1:24 pm

People seem to be upset at the potential censorship Mythbusters’ Adam Savage described when he said industry lawyers prevented him from creating an episode about security problems with RFID.  Now new accounts are being released both by TI and Adam indicating the situation wasn’t so coercive.

According to a TI spokesperson, this all began when:

“To move the process along, Texas Instruments coordinated a conversation with Smart Card Alliance (SCA) who invited MasterCard and Visa, on contactless payments to help MythBusters get the right information.”

And, instead of an army of credit card company lawyers, TI claims that:

“Of the handful of people on the call, there were mostly product managers and only one contactless payment company’s legal counsel member.”

Since I’ve developed for smart cards before and attended an SCA event, I can give more background information on the players involved.  I doubt anything sinister happened, and Mythbusters’ status as an outsider probably contributed to the misunderstanding.

There may be hundreds of different types of system covered by the name “RFID”, so when Mythbusters contacted TI, it’s likely they hadn’t identified exactly what they wanted to talk about.  Given the references to “contactless payment” in TI’s statement, they’re probably talking about ISO 14443 contactless smart cards.  However, there are numerous other implementations of “contactless payment”, for example, the proprietary (and broken) SpeedPass system.

Once they had narrowed down the discussion, it still would not have been clear which payment application Mythbusters would examine.  This is because ISO 14443 merely specifies the communication protocol and modulation, not how to talk to an application to perform credits, debits, etc.  This is probably what the spokesperson was referring to when he said:

“Some of the information that was needed to pursue the program required further support from the contactless payment companies as they construct their own proprietary systems for security to protect their customers.”

The most common application standard is EMV.  It describes a standard between readers and cards to perform payment transactions on top of the underlying wire protocol, whether it is contactless or not.  There are other payment applications supported on a single card.  EMV does describe cryptographic security (encryption and signatures) to authenticate the transactions, say, to prevent unauthorized debits.

But there may be more here when the spokesperson said “proprietary systems for security”.  Depending on the direction Mythbusters took, he could also be talking about attempts to prevent side-channel (DPA) or physical attacks (glitching, probing).  Those are usually very specific to a given implemenation of a device.  It would be interesting to see if Mythbusters was really that skilled to consider attempting those kinds of attacks.

The other interesting thing to note is the presence of product managers on the call.  Most of the time, a product manager can’t answer really technical questions about protocols, interfacing, etc.  Their job is a marketing role — to explain the features of the product in the most appealing light.  A product manager wouldn’t know how to help someone attack their system (nor would they want to), however they would be good at extolling the many great security features their product has.

So while Mythbusters was probably not threatened by the industry, they were definitely being provided a very RFID-positive perspective.  That’s obvious and what any company would do in the same situation.

The biggest question that remains is what exactly did Mythbusters hope to show?  Did they have some outside expert lined up to do the actual work?  If not, why did they start by asking the parties least motivated to help them?

[Update: I think the episode Mythbusters did air about RFID is this one.  They test that an implantable RFID chip does not heat up or explode when present during an MRI.  At the end, they hint that they might investigate payment systems (a quite different type of RFID), but dismiss that plan.]

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