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Cryptography

Crackpot Cryptography and Security Theater

Tales from the Crypt[ography].

A few years ago, when the IETF’s Crypto Forum Research Group was deeply entrenched in debates about elliptic curves for security (which eventually culminated in RFC 7748 and RFC 8032), an IT Consultant showed up on the mailing list with their homemade cipher, Crystalline.

Mike Hamburg politely informed the consultant that the CFRG isn’t the right forum for proposing new symmetric ciphers, or even new modes for symmetric ciphers, and invited them to email them off-list.

If you’re not familiar with the CFRG, let me just say, this was on the more patient and measured responses I’ve ever read.

Naturally, the author of Crystalline responded with this:

I’m somewhat disappointed in your reply, as I presumed that someone with a stated interest in ciphers would be eager to investigate anything new to pop up that didn’t have obvious holes in it. It almost sounds like you have had your soul crushed by bureaucracy over the years and have lost all passion for this field.

Full quote available here. It doesn’t get much better.
Really dude? (Art by Khia.)

The discussion continued until Tony Arcieri dropped one of the most brutal takedowns of a cryptographic design in CFRG history.

I think the biggest problem though is all of this has already been pointed out to you repeatedly in other forums and you completely refuse to acknowledge that your cipher fails to meet the absolute most minimum criteria for a secure cipher.

Tony Arcieri, landing a cryptographic 360 no-scope on Crystalline.

In spite of this mic drop moment, the author of Crystalline continued to double down and insist that a symmetric cipher doesn’t need to be indistinguishable from randomness to be secure (which, to severely understate the affairs, is simply not true).

Normally, when a cipher fails at the indistinguishable test, it’s subtle. This is what Crystalline ciphertexts look like.

Data encrypted with Crystalline, provided in the CFRG mailing list.

Modern ciphers produce something that will look like white noise, like an old TV without the cable plugged in. There should be no discernible pattern.

Crystalline’s author remained convinced that Crystalline’s “131072-bit keys” and claims of “information-theoretic security” were compelling enough to warrant consideration by the standards body that keeps the Internet running.

This was in 2015. In the year 2021, I can safely say that Crystalline adoption never really took off.

Against Crackpot Crypto

Instances of Crackpot Cryptography don’t always look like Crystalline. Sometimes the authors are more charismatic, or have more financial resources to bedazzle would-be suckers^investors. Other times, they’re less brazen and keep their designs far away from the watchful gaze of expert opinions–lest their mistakes be exposed for all to see.

Crackpot cryptography is considered dangerous–not because we want people to avoid encryption entirely, but because crackpot cryptography offers a false sense of security. This leads to users acting in ways they wouldn’t if they knew there was little-to-no security. Due to the strictly performative nature of these security measures, I also like to call them Security Theater (although that term is more broadly applicable in other contexts).

The Cryptology community has a few defense mechanisms in place to prevent the real-world adoption of crackpot cryptography. More specifically, we have pithy mottos that distill best practices in a way that usually gets the intent across. (Hey, it’s something!) Unfortunately, the rest of the security industry outside of cryptology often weaponizes these mottos to promote useless and harmful gatekeeping.

The best example of this is the, “Don’t roll your own crypto!” motto.

They See Me Rollin’ [My Own Crypto]

Crackpots never adhere to this rule, so anyone who violates it immediately or often, with wild abandon, can be safely dismissed for kooky behavior.

But if taken to its literal, logical extreme, this rule mandates that nobody would ever write cryptographic code and we wouldn’t have cryptography libraries to begin with. So, clearly, it’s a rule meant to be sometimes broken.

This is why some cryptography engineers soften the message a bit and encourage tinkering for the sake of education. The world needs more software engineers qualified to write cryptography.

After all, you wouldn’t expect to hear “Don’t roll your own crypto” being levied against Jason Donenfeld (WireGuard) or Frank Denis (libsodium), despite the fact that both of those people did just that.

But what about a high-level library that defers to libsodium for its actual crypto implementations?

In a twist that surprises no one, lazy heuristics have a high false positive rate. In this case, the lazy heuristic is both, “What qualifies as rolling one’s own crypto?” as well as, “When is it safe to break this rule?”

More broadly, though, is that these knee-jerk responses are a misfiring defense mechanism intended to stop quacks from taking all the air out of the room.

It doesn’t always work, though. There have been a few downright absurd instances of crackpot cryptography in the past few years.

Modern Examples of Crypto Crackpottery

Craig Wright’s Sartre Signature Scam

Satoshi Nakamoto is the alias of the anonymous cryptographer that invented Bitcoin. In the years since Satoshi has gone quiet, a few cranks have come out of the woodwork to claim to be the real Satoshi.

Craig Wright is one of the more famous Satoshi impersonators due to his Sartre Signature Scam.

Satoshi’s earliest Bitcoin transactions are public. If you can lift the public key and signature from the transaction and then replay them in a different context as “proof” that you’re Satoshi, you can produce a proof of identity that validates without having to possess Satoshi’s private key. Then you can just wildly claim it’s a signature that validates the text of some philosopher’s prose and a lot of people will believe you.

With a little bit of showmanship added on, you too can convince Gavin Anderson by employing this tactic. (Or maybe not; I imagine he’s learned his lesson by now.)

Time AI

Crown Sterling’s sponsored talk at Black Hat USA 2019 is the most vivid example of crackpot cryptography in most people’s minds.

Even the name “Time AI” just screams buzzword soup, so it should come as no surprise that their talk covered a lot of nonsense: “quasi-prime numbers”, “infinite wave conjugations”, “nano-scale of time”, “speed of AI oscillations”, “unified physics cosmology”, and “multi-dimensional encryption technology”.

Naturally, this pissed a lot of cryptographers off, and the normally even-keeled Dan Guido of Trail of Bits actually called them out on their bullshit during their presentation’s Q&A section.

For most people, the story ended with a bunch of facepalms. But Crown Sterling doubled down and published a press release claiming the ability to break 256-bit RSA keys.

Facepaw

Amusingly, their attack took 50 seconds–which is a lot slower than the standard RSA factoring attacks for small key sizes.

(For those who are missing context: In order to be secure, RSA requires public key sizes in excess of 2048 bits. Breaking 256-bit RSA should take less than a minute on any modern PC.)

Terra Quantum

Earlier this week, Bloomberg news ran a story titled, A Swiss Company Says It Found Weakness That Imperils Encryption. If you only read the first few paragraphs, it’s really clear that the story basically boils down to, “Swiss Company realizes there’s an entire discipline of computer science dedicated to quantum computers and the risks they pose to cryptography.”

Here’s a quick primer on quantum computers and cryptography:

If a practical quantum computer is ever built, it can immediately break all of the asymmetric cryptography used on the Internet today: RSA, DSA, Diffie-Hellman, Elliptic Curve Cryptography, etc. The attack costs to break these algorithms vary, but are generally in the 2^{32} range (for numbers of queries).

The jury is still out on whether or not quantum computers will ever be practical. Just in case, a lot of cryptographers are working on post-quantum cryptography (algorithms that are secure even against quantum computers).

Symmetric cryptography fares a lot better: The attack costs are roughly reduced by a factor of \sqrt N. This makes a 128-bit secure cipher have only a 64-bit security level, which is pretty terrible, but a 256-bit secure cipher remains at the 128-bit security level even with practical quantum computers.

So it’s a little strange that they open with:

The company said that its research found vulnerabilities that affect symmetric encryption ciphers, including the Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES, which is widely used to secure data transmitted over the internet and to encrypt files. Using a method known as quantum annealing, the company said its research found that even the strongest versions of AES encryption may be decipherable by quantum computers that could be available in a few years from now.

From the Bloomberg article.

Uh, no.

Let’s do some math: 2^{32} calculations can be performed in seconds on modern computers. If we assume that practical quantum computers are also as fast as classical computers, it’s safe to assume this will hold true as well.

You can break 128-bit ciphers in 2^{64} time, using Grover’s algorithm. You can’t break 256-bit ciphers in any practical time, even with the quantum computer speed-up. Most software prefers 256-bit AES over 128-bit AES for this reason.

What does 2^{64} time look like?

In 2012, we could break DES (which has 56-bit keys) in 24 hours with FPGAs dedicated to the task. Since each extra bit of security doubles the search space, we can extrapolate that 64-bits would require 2^{64-56}=2^{8} or 256 days.

So even with a quantum computer in hand, you would need to spend several months trying to break a single 128-bit AES key.

(Art by Scruff Kerfluff.)

If this were just one poorly written Bloomberg article put together by someone who vastly misunderstands post-quantum cryptography, Terra Quantum AG wouldn’t require much mention.

But, as with other crackpots before them, Terra Quantum doubled down with yet another press release published on Business Wire. (Archived.)

Terra Quantum realised that the AES is fairly secure against already identified algorithms but may appear fenceless against upcoming threats. To build the defence, Terra Quantum set out to look for a weakness by testing the AES against new algorithms. They Terra Quantum discovered a weakness on the message-digest algorithm MD5.

Okay, so in the time that elapsed between the two press releases, they realized they couldn’t realistically break AES with a quantum computer, but…

MD5? MD-fucking-FIVE?! This is a joke right?

“Let’s hype up a hypothetical attack leveraged by quantum computers and then direct it at the most widely broken hash function on Earth.” – Shorter Terra Quantum

(Art by Khia.)

The press release goes on to almost have a moment of self-awareness, but ultimately fails to do so:

The Terra Quantum team found that one can crack an algorithm using a quantum annealer containing about 20,000 qubits. No such annealer exists today, and while it is impossible to predict when it may be created, it is conceivable that such an annealer could become available to hackers in the future.

(Emphasis mine.)

Yikes. There’s a lot of bullshit in that sentence, but it only gets zanier from there.

Here’s an actual quote from Terra Quantum’s CTOs, Gordey Lesovik and Valerii Vinokur about the “solution” to their imaginary problem:

“A new protocol derives from the notion that Quantum Demon is a small beast. The standard approach utilises the concept that the Demon hired by an eavesdropper (Eva) is a King Kong-like hundred kilometres big monster who can successfully use all the transmission line losses to decipher the communication. But since real Quantum Demons are small, Eva has to recruit an army of a billion to successfully collect all the scattered waves leaking from the optical fibre that she needs for efficient deciphering. Terra Quantum proposes an innovative technique utilizing the fact that such an army cannot exist – in accord with the second law of thermodynamics.”

I seriously cannot fucking make this shit up. My fiction writing skills are simply not good enough.

I don’t partake in recreational drugs, but if I did, I’d probably want whatever they’re on.

It’s important to note, at no point does Terra Quantum show their work. No source code or technical papers are published; just a lot of press releases that make exaggerated claims about quantum computers and totally misunderstands post-quantum cryptography.

Takeaways

If you see a press release on Business Wire about cryptography, it’s probably a scam. Real cryptographers publish on ePrint and then peer-reviewed journals, present their talks at conferences (but not sponsored talks), and exercise radical transparency with all facets of their work.

Publish the source code, Luke!

Cryptography has little patience for swindlers, liars, and egomaniacs. (Although cryptocurrency seems more amenable to those personalities.) That doesn’t stop them from trying, of course.

If you’re reading this blog post and feel like learning about cryptography and cryptanalysis and feel put off by the “don’t roll your own crypto” mantra, and its implied gatekeeping, I hope it’s clear by now who that phrase was mostly intended for and why.

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