Friday, 22 September 2017 08:51

NSA forced to back down in fight over encryption algorithms


Cryptography experts from a number of countries have forced the US National Security Agency to reverse its stance on two data encryption algorithms that it wanted to set as global industry standards.

Reuters reported that academic and industry experts from Germany, Japan and Israel were concerned that the NSA was pushing the new algorithms, known as SIMON and SPECK, not because they were superior to others, but because the NSA knew how to break them.

Specifications for SIMON and SPECK were published by the NSA in June 2013.

"The aim of SIMON and SPECK is to fill the need for secure, flexible, and analysable lightweight block ciphers," the NSA wrote in the abstract describing the specification.

"Each offers excellent performance on hardware and software platforms, is flexible enough to admit a variety of implementations on a given platform, and is amenable to analysis using existing techniques.

"Both perform exceptionally well across the full spectrum of lightweight applications, but SIMON is tuned for optimal performance in hardware, and SPECK for optimal performance in software."

Reuters said the NSA had now agreed to adopt only the strongest versions of these techniques which are least likely to be vulnerable to hacks.

It said the debate over the algorithms had taken place in closed-door meetings around the world over the last three years. The International Organisation for Standardisation is the body that approves any new algorithms as a standard.

While there are NSA officials on the American delegation to the ISO, the team is controlled by the American National Standards Institute.

Reuters said it had seen emails sent by delegates from different countries in which distrust was voiced about the NSA, much of which stemmed from the 2013 revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the extent of surveillance being carried out by the American agency.

More than a dozen of the delegates were fearful that if SIMON and SPECK were adopted as standards, then the NSA would have a backdoor into encrypted communications.

An Israeli delegate Orr Dunkelman told Reuters that he did not trust the designers.

Dunkelman, a computer science professor at the University of Haifa, said, citing Snowden’s papers, “There are quite a lot of people in NSA who think their job is to subvert standards. My job is to secure standards."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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