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Security-vendor snake oil: 7 promises that don't deliver

Roger A. Grimes | May 14, 2014
Beware bold promises from a multibillion-dollar industry that can't prevent your IT systems from being routinely hacked

I don't mean to negate that professor's contributions to computer security. He's one of the best computer security experts in the world — truly a hero to the cause. But you won't hear him claim anymore that perfect software can be made.

Remember these high-profile lessons in humility the next time you hear a vendor claim that its software is invulnerable.

Security snake oil No. 2: 1,000,000-bit crypto
Every year a vendor or coder no one has heard of claims to have made unbreakable crypto. And, with few exceptions, they fail miserably. Although it's a claim similar to unbreakable software, technical discussion will illuminate a very different flavor of snake oil at work here.

Good crypto is hard to make; even the best in the world don't have the guts (or sanity) to claim theirs can't be broken. In fact, you'll be lucky to get them to concede that their encryption is anything but "nontrivial" to compromise. I trust the encryption expert who doesn't trust himself. Anything else means trusting a snake-oil salesman trying to sell you flawed crypto.

Case in point: A few years ago a vendor came on the scene claiming he had unbreakable crypto. What made his encryption so incredible was that he used a huge key and distributed part (or parts) of the secret key in the cloud. Because the key was never in one place, it would be impossible to compromise. And the encryption algorithm and routine was secure because it was a secret, too.

Most knowledgeable security pros recognize that a good cipher should always have a known encryption algorithm that stands up to public review. Not this vendor.

But the best (and most hilarious) part was the vendor's claim that his superior cipher was backed by a million-bit key. Never mind that strong encryption today is backed by key sizes of 256-bit (symmetric) or 2,048-bit (asymmetric). This company was promising an encryption key that was orders of magnitude bigger.

Cryptologists chuckled at this for two reasons. First, when you have a good encryption routine, the involved key size can be small because no one can brute-force all the possible permutations of even relatively small encryption keys — think, more than the "number of atoms in the known universe" type of stuff. Instead, to break ciphers today, cryptologists find flaws in the cipher's mathematics, which allow them to rule out very large parts of the populations of possible keys. In a nutshell, found cryptographic weaknesses allow attackers to develop shortcuts to faster guessing of the valid possible keys.

All things being equal, a proven cipher with a smaller key size is considered more secure. A prime example is ECC (elliptic curve cryptography) versus RSA. Today, an RSA-protected key must be 2,048 bits or larger to be considered relatively secure. With ECC, 384 bits is considered sufficient. RSA (the original algorithm) is probably nearing the end of its usefulness, and ECC is just starting to become a primary player.


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