.net programming, computers and assorted technology rants

Google Upgrading to 2048 bit digital certificates

Courtesy Dan Goodin, Ars Technica

Google is upgrading the digital certificates used to secure its Gmail, Calendar, and Web search services. Beginning on August 1, the company will start upgrading the RSA keys used to encrypt Web traffic and authenticate to 2048-bits, twice as many as are used now.

The rollout affects the transport layer security (TLS) certificates that underpin HTTPS connections to Google properties. Sometimes involving the secure sockets layer (SSL) protocol, the technologies prevent attackers from reading the contents of traffic passing between end users and Google. They also provide a cryptographic assurance that servers claiming to be Google.com are in fact operated by Google, as opposed to being clones created by attackers exploiting age-old weaknesses in the way the Internet routes traffic.

There are good reasons for Google to upgrade the strength of these crucial digital keys. The weaker the key strength of an RSA key pair, the easier it is for anyone to mathematically derive the "private key." Such attacks work by taking the certificate’s "public key" that’s published on the website and factoring it to derive the two prime numbers that make up the private key. Once the private key for a Google certificate has been factored, the attacker can impersonate an HTTPS-protected Google server and provide the same indications of cryptographic security as the legitimate service. Someone who was able to derive the secret primes to Google’s private key, for instance, would be able to create convincing attacks that would fool many browsers and e-mail clients.

The factors in private keys are extremely time-consuming to find, but increases in computing power are making the task gradually easier. In 2009, researchers were able to factor a 768-bit RSA key,according to Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia went on to say that a 1024-bit key has not yet been factored. While it may take years for that to happen, it’s only a matter of time until it is. And of course, secretive agencies within powerful nation states may already have the ability to factor larger bit sizes.

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