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Stop using NSA-influenced code in our products, RSA tells customers

Coutesy Dan Goodin, ArsTechnica.com

Officials from RSA Security are advising customers of the company’s BSAFE toolkit and Data Protection Manager to stop using a crucial cryptography component in the products that were recently revealed to contain a backdoor engineered by the National Security Agency (NSA).

An advisory sent to select RSA customers on Thursday confirms that both products by default use something known as Dual EC_DRBG when creating cryptographic keys. The specification, which was approved in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and later by the International Organization for Standardization, contains a backdoor that was inserted by the NSA, The New York Times reported last week. RSA’s advisory came 24 hours after Ars asked the company if it intended to warn BSAFE customers about the deliberately crippled pseudo random number generator (PRNG), which is so weak that it undermines the security of most or all cryptography systems that use it.

"To ensure a high level of assurance in their application, RSA strongly recommends that customers discontinue use of Dual EC DRBG and move to a different PRNG," the RSA advisory stated. "Technical guidance, including how to change the default PRNG in most libraries, is available in the most current product documentation" on RSA’s websites.

The BSAFE library is used to implement cryptographic functions into products, including at least some versions of the McAfee Firewall Enterprise Control Center, according to NIST certifications. The RSA Data Protection Manager is used to manage cryptographic keys. Confirmation that both use the backdoored RNG means that an untold number of third-party products may be bypassed not only by advanced intelligence agencies, but possibly by other adversaries who have the resources to carry out attacks that use specially designed hardware to quickly cycle through possible keys until the correct one is guessed.

McAfee representatives issued a statement that confirmed the McAfee Firewall Enterprise Control Center 5.3.1 supported the Dual_EC_DRBG, but only when deployed in federal government or government contractor customer environments, where this FIPS certification has recommended it. The product uses the newer SHA1 PRNG random number generator in all other settings.

The NIST certification page lists dozens of other products that also use the weak RNG. Most of those appear to be one-off products. More significant is the embrace of BSAFE as the default RNG, because the tool has the ability to spawn a large number of derivative crypto systems that are highly susceptible to being broken.

In the beginning …

From the beginning, Dual EC_DRBG—short for Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator—struck some cryptographers as an odd choice for one of NIST’s officially sanctioned RNGs. It was literally hundreds of times slower than typical RNGs, and its basis in "discrete logarithm" mathematics was highly unusual in production environments.

"I personally believed that it was some theoretical cryptographer’s pet project," one cryptographer who asked not to be named told Ars. "I envisioned a mathematician, annoyed at the lack of theoretical foundation in random number generation, badgering his way into an NIST standard."

A year after NIST approved the RNG as a standard, two Microsoft researchers devised an attack that allowed adversaries to guess any key created with the RNG with relatively little work.

Johns Hopkins professor Matt Green recounts that failing and a wealth of other peculiarities surrounding the embrace of Dual_EC_DRBG in an exhaustive technical analysis published Wednesday. Among them, when Dual_EC_RNG was adopted, was that it had no security proof.

"In the course of proposing this complex and slow new PRNG where the only frigging reason you’d ever use the thing is for its security reduction, NIST forgot to provide one," Green wrote. "This is like selling someone a Mercedes and forgetting to include the hood ornament."

In an e-mail, RSA Chief of Technology Sam Curry defended the decision-making process that went into making the RNG the default way for BSAFE and Data Protection Manager to generate keys.

"The length of time that Dual_EC_DRBG takes can be seen as a virtue: it also slows down an attacker trying to guess the seed," he wrote. He continued:

Plenty of other crypto functions (PBKDF2, bcrypt, scrypt) will iterate a hash 1000 times specifically to make it slower. At the time, elliptic curves were in vogue and hash-based RNG was under scrutiny. The hope was that elliptic curve techniques—based as they are on number theory—would not suffer many of the same weaknesses as other techniques (like the FIPS 186 SHA-1 generator) that were seen as negative, and Dual_EC_DRBG was an accepted and publicly scrutinized standard. SP800-90 (which defines Dual EC DRBG) requires new features like continuous testing of the output, mandatory re-seeding, optional prediction resistance, and the ability to configure for different strengths.

It will take time for people to ferret out all the products that use Dual_EC_DRBG, particularly as the sole or default RNG. Readers who know of others are invited to leave that information in a comment to this post.


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