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Security: Article

Time to Ditch Cryptographic Keys?

Will keyless signatures overtake PKI as the wave of the future? Governments, flying drones, and big telecom all say so

What is the most secure way to authenticate electronic data? Until recently, many technical people would have answered ‘cryptographic keys' without blinking. But recent headline events - and a ‘biggie' last year - have raised serious doubts about the ability of cryptographic keys to protect vital government and corporate data.

Here are two examples from February that should make CIOs, CTOs and CSOs tremble in their boardrooms: McAfee revoking keys for signing apps on the Apple store; and stolen keys from Bit9 being used to sign malware.

In the McAfee case, a McAfee administrator revoked (by mistake) the digital key for certifying desktop apps that run on Apple's OS X, thereby creating serious problems for customers who wanted to install or upgrade Mac antivirus products.

The original Arstechnica article (McAfee revoking keys) noted that the administrator intended to revoke his individual user key, but "instead revoked the code-signing keys Apple uses to help keep the Mac ecosystem free of malware."

The bottom line: the mistake left customers with no safe options to install or upgrade their programs. The big takeaway: this episode paints a graphic picture of the challenges of administering the digital certificates at the heart of public key infrastructures (PKI) - certificates used to validate software and websites, and to encrypt email and other forms of Internet communication.

Also in February, a private key that security firm Bit9 uses to certify software was stolen by crooks and used to put a trusted seal of approval on malware that infected a few Bit9 customers.

However, those sorry episodes pale in comparison to a massive security breach last year when hackers used a stolen master private key from RSA to attack Lockheed Martin (RSA/EMC losing its master private key.) Lockheed, a major defense contractor to the U.S. government, makes the F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighter aircraft, the Aegis naval combat system, and the THAAD missile defense.

Sources close to Lockheed said compromised RSA SecurID tokens - USB keychain dongles that generate strings of numbers for cryptography purposes - played a pivotal role in the Lockheed Martin hack.

Hackers apparently entered Lockheed Martin's servers and accessed the company's virtual private network (VPN). The VPN allows employees to connect over virtually any public network to the company's primary servers, using information streams secured by cryptography.

With the RSA tokens hacked, those supposedly secure VPN connections were compromised.

Predictably, Lockheed said it detected the attack almost immediately, repulsed it quickly, and that the risk was minimal. The company also claimed that no customer, program or personal employee data was compromised.

All of the above examples not only undermine the security of using cryptographic keys but leave people wondering whether there is a better way to authenticate.

The better way - Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) - has been around since 2007, when it was invented by scientists in Estonia. KSI generates digital signatures for electronic data on a massive scale but uses only cryptographic hash functions, meaning there are no keys to be compromised or trusted humans in sight.

Some six years ago, Estonian scientists at Tallinn Technical University posed the question: How can you rely on electronic data if you assume that your entire network has been compromised and nobody - not even the system administrators within your own organization - can be trusted?

KSI, the fruit of those scientists' work, is used by governments and companies around the world. It helps them to authenticate electronic data generated from the Smart Grid, the Connected Car, and networked routers and machines (either virtual or physical) - basically any type of electronic data. In November, China Telecom, the largest fixed line telecommunications service provider in China, became a keyless signature service provider via its Tianyi 3G platform. Most recently Japan Drones, a developer of custom software for miniature Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) announced it was using keyless signatures for its drone security. The U.S. military could use the good PR, given publicity over a white hat hacking scheme done by University of Texas students as reported in June by The Huffington Post, which went as far as to say, "Turns out it's not too difficult to hack a drone."

Chaozong Chen, general manager of Ningbo CA, the Certificate Authority for the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province in China, said, "KSI's unique features such as independency of verification, intrinsic time binding for data, universal accessibility cross platforms and lack of keys allow us to provide functions and values where traditional public key infrastructure (PKI) is limited. The future proof from quantum computing is of course a major benefit."

Here's another example of KSI in action: every payment within the Estonian banking system comes with a keyless signature, ensuring that insiders cannot modify transactions intent on fraud.

In addition, the Estonian government has embarked on a huge project to integrate KSI technology into the rsyslog utility - a project that will enable every system event across all government networks to be authenticated by time, data integrity and server identity. (Note: rsylog is an open source utility used on Unix and Unix-like computers for forwarding log messages in an IP network.)

Further demonstrating Estonia's confidence in KSI, the Estonian Government's Centre of Registers and Information Systems (RIK) recently embraced the technology.

RIK is using keyless signature technology for validating the authenticity of documents that it is digitizing from the archives of the Succession Register and Chamber of Notaries.

Using keyless signature infrastructure, the authenticity of all the records is periodically verified, the re-verification happens automatically, meaning that the information about the integrity of the stored records is always up to date and any breaches create an alert immediately.

As KSI has proven itself for years in various government and commercial entities, the time is ripe to consider it the logical successor to cryptographic keys, which are starting to look outdated and very vulnerable.

"While our PKI based solutions have been widely adopted, we see a growing need to prove data integrity and time on a massive scale, with cases where customer identification registration is unpractical and less important, such as electronic receipts for cash based transactions," said Chaozong Chen. "These are where KSI can help. It is strategically important for us to start integrating KSI with our successful PKI solutions and this will help us maintain our leadership in the field."

More Stories By Herman Mehling

Herman Mehling has been an IT writer and consultant for more than 25 years. He has written thousands of articles for leading trade magazines and websites. His work has appeared in such publications as Computer Reseller News, eWeek, Forbes, Network World and InformationWeek. In the ’80s and ’90s, he worked as a PR executive at many San Francisco Bay Area high-tech agencies, including Niehaus Ryan Haller, which helped to launch Yahoo! and to re-cast the image of Apple as an Internet player. He was a staff editor and reporter at Computer Reseller News for many years.

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