Last fall, an encryption tool widely distributed through leading security firm RSA was withdrawn because of concerns it was vulnerable to decoding by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), which created it. Now, a team of researchers has reported that the super-secret agency also created at least one other tool that allowed it to more easily decode transmissions.
Both tools were part of RSA's BSafe software security package, and both are assumed to have provided back-door access to communications and software encrypted with BSafe tools.
The Reuters news agency reported Monday that a team of academic researchers from several universities, including Johns Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois, has discovered the NSA was involved with the second tool. It's called an "Extended Random" extension, and it can be used to crack the RSA's Dual Elliptic Curve random number generator software -- the other NSA developed tool that had been withdrawn -- tens of thousands of times faster than other methods.
NIST and NSA
The Extended Random software is supposed to increase the randomness of Dual Elliptic Curve-generated numbers, thus making its encoding more secure. However, the researchers discovered that the extra data transmitted by Extended Random before a secure connection begins made decoding the the following transmission much easier.
The Extended Random software was removed from RSA's BSafe security kit within the last six months. Reportedly, Extended Random had not been widely adopted.
"We trusted [the NSA] because they are charged with security" for the U.S., a RSA executive told Reuters.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) had accepted an NSA proposal in 2006 to create the Dual Elliptic Curve random number generator. There had subsequently been suspicions and reports -- including from Microsoft researchers -- that the resulting code from the NSA contained a back door.
But NIST reportedly accepted it because other governmental agencies were using it. In December, Reuters reported that the NSA had paid RSA $10 million to make the Dual Elliptic Curve the default for its BSafe security kit. RSA has declined to comment on the possibility that the NSA also paid the company a fee for including Extended Random in the kit.
After documents revealed by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden indicated the NSA was involved in community cryptography standards in order to create vulnerabilities it could exploit, NIST issued a warning in September than the Dual Elliptic Curve code "no longer be used."
After the NIST warning, RSA warned its customers, since the code was being widely used for security. A random number generator is common in cryptography, but a generator that is not random is more easily hacked. Some experts have contended, however, that only the NSA had the capability of breaking this particular generator.