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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Behind al Qaeda Encryption Software

The web intelligence firm Recorded Future has posted two stories about how al Qaeda is using new encryption software in response to the Snowden disclosures. NPR picked up the story a week later.
Former NSA Chief Council Stewart Baker uses this as evidence that Snowden has harmed America. Glenn Greenwald calls this "CIA talking points" and shows that al Qaeda was using encryption well before Snowden. Both quote me heavily, Baker casting me as somehow disingenuous on this topic.
Baker is conflating my stating of two cryptography truisms. The first is that cryptography is hard, and you're much better off using well-tested public algorithms than trying to roll your own. The second is that cryptographic implementation is hard, and you're much better off using well-tested open-source encryption software than you are trying to roll your own. Admittedly, they're very similar, and sometimes I'm not as precise as I should be when talking to reporters.
This is what I wrote in May:
I think this will help US intelligence efforts. Cryptography is hard, and the odds that a home-brew encryption product is better than a well-studied open-source tool is slight. Last fall, Matt Blaze said to me that he thought that the Snowden documents will usher in a new dark age of cryptography, as people abandon good algorithms and software for  of their own devising. My guess is that this an example of that.
Note the phrase "good algorithms and software." My intention was to invoke both truisms in the same sentence. That paragraph is true if al Qaeda is rolling their own encryption algorithms, as Recorded Future reported in May. And it remains true if al Qaeda is using algorithms like my own Twofish and rolling their own software, as Recorded Future reported earlier this month. Everything we know about how the NSA breaks cryptography is that they attack the implementations far more successfully than the algorithms.
My guess is that in this case they don't even bother with the encryption software; they just attack the users' computers. There's nothing that screams "hack me" more than using specially designed al Qaeda encryption software. There's probably a QUANTUMINSERT attack and FOXACID exploit already set on automatic fire.
I don't want to get into an argument about whether al Qaeda is altering its security in response to the Snowden documents. Its members would be idiots if they did not, but it's also clear that they were designing their own cryptographic software long before Snowden. My guess is that the smart ones are using public tools like OTR and PGP and the paranoid dumb ones are using their own stuff, and that the split was the same both pre- and post-Snowden.

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