Innovative and Flawed MintChip Challenge by The Royal Canadian Mint

Sunday, 22 April, 2012

Innovative and Flawed MintChip Challenge by The Royal Canadian Mint

It is refreshing to see the Royal Canadian Mint (RCM) innovatively create and launch the MintChip Challenge to solicit ideas, software apps submissions and discussions from the public. At the same time, I find it very troubling to see the core security basis of the MintChip system has not been released for public review and discussion. In fact, here is the official RCM line in this forum discussion thread,

While we appreciate your interest in the physical chip’s trusted hardware, public-key infrastructure and encryption methods, we are not in a position to release that information at this time.

Well “… not in a position to release that information …”, really? I can appreciate the “coolness” in seeing interesting apps and use cases, but security has to be the foundation of MintChip and other similar products, without a properly reviewed, fully inspected, time-tested cryptographic system as a solid foundation, the rest of the “cool apps” & interesting use cases will not be of use to anyone.

I’ve been a long time reader of security industry expert Bruce Schneier’s ideas and ground breaking book Applied Cryptography (1995) out of curiosity and interest. Bruce wrote this insightful warning signs “Snake Oil” post in 1999

The problem with bad security is that it looks just like good security. You can’t tell the difference by looking at the finished product. Both make the same security claims; both have the same functionality. Both might even use the same algorithms: triple-DES, 1024-bit RSA, etc. Both might use the same protocols, implement the same standards, and have been endorsed by the same industry groups. Yet one is secure and the other is insecure.

Many cryptographers have likened this situation to the pharmaceutical industry before regulation. The parallels are many: vendors can make any claims they want, consumers don’t have the expertise to judge the accuracy of those claims, and there’s no real liability on the part of the vendors (read the license you agree to when you buy a software security product).”

After rereading the listed nine snake-oil warning signs, I get very uncomfortable when I see these words in the MintChip Challenge,

“Using innovative technology, for which the Mint has prototypes and five patents pending, MintChip uses a secure chip to hold electronic value and a protocol to transfer it from one chip to another.

What are in these “prototypes”? How are they tested and verified? How much of the crypto system are kept in these pending patents and how much will remain part of the “trade secrets”? Security through obscurity is a very bad idea.

Of course, in the minds of RCM, they may think the $52,000+ MintChip Challenge prize money is totally worthwhile in exchange of the hundreds of developers’ time and effort. At the same time, if project MintChip fail due to flawed security in the crypto system, the credibility of Royal Canadian Mint will unfortunately be tarnished. So the price is the $52K and the Mint’s reputation!

I urge the Royal Canadian Mint to publish the technical details of the MintChip cryptographic system and invite the security community to properly review and inspect the whole system to ensure it has a solid foundation to avoid wasting people’s time and, more importantly, maintain the Mint‘s hard earned credibility.

MintChipChallenge promo video

[HT Dwayne L in the discussion thread for the link to Bruce’s “Snake Oil”]


2012 Special-Purpose Hardware for Attacking Cryptographic Systems Conference

Saturday, 31 March, 2012

If you are interested in understanding more about cryptographic systems, you may be interested in the ~200 pages presentations from the 2012 SHARCS (Special-Purpose Hardware for Attacking Cryptographic Systems) conference downloadable online. [HT Bruce]

Lockheed Martin’s networks breached by hackers using counterfeit RSA SecurID electronic keys

Saturday, 28 May, 2011

– PC World, “Lockheed-Martin Attack Signals New Era of Cyber Espionage

– CNN, “Lockheed Martin detects ‘significant’ attack on information network

– CNet, “Report: Major weapons makers see networks breached by hackers

– Bloomberg, “U.S. Government Offers Lockheed Assistance After ‘Tenacious’ Cyber Attack

– AFP, “Lockheed Martin confirms attack on its IT network

– CBC, “Lockheed Martin hit by cyberattack

NOTE: Here is a March 2011 CNet background story, “What the RSA breach means for you (FAQ)

Schneier’s Law

Saturday, 16 April, 2011

Something fun about cryptography. Enjoy.

“Schneier’s Law”

by Bruce Schneier on Friday, April 15, 2011 at 12:45pm

Back in 1998, I wrote:

Anyone, from the most clueless amateur to the best cryptographer, can create an algorithm that he himself can’t break.

In 2004, Cory Doctorow called this Schneier’s law:

…what I think of as Schneier’s Law: “any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can’t think of how to break it.” Read the rest of this entry »

CUHK Bioencryption – Just storage, no encryption?

Sunday, 30 January, 2011

It was interesting to read about a team of students and their advisors from Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) School of Life Sciences won gold with their bioencryption project (see more news) at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) 2010 competition organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While the team has certainly made some interesting progress, security technologist and author Bruce Schneier has questions about the team’s “bioencryption” claims (emphasis),

Why can’t bacteria be hacked? If the storage system is attached to a network, it’s just as vulnerable as anything else attached to a network. And if it’s disconnected from any network, then it’s just as secure as anything else disconnected from a network. The problem the U.S. diplomats had was authorized access to the WikiLeaks cables by someone who decided to leak them. No cryptography helps against that.

And Bruce even started his article with, “The article talks about how secure it is, and the students even coined the term “bioencryption,” but I don’t see any encryption. It’s just storage.

I can’t find a full technical paper to read but after reading the above press reports and the team’s iGEM project description, project principle, and project results, I have to say, like Bruce, I also don’t see any encryption and it looks like just storage to me.

And reading scientist’s quotes like the following in popular press,

Bacteria can’t be hacked. All kinds of computers are vulnerable to electrical failures or data theft. But bacteria are immune from cyber attacks. You can safeguard the information.

just don’t exactly give me confidence that the scientist fully appreciate/understand computer security/cryptography.

I don’t mean to be too critical of some of the CUHK team’s achievements. I think they have done well. At the same time, I think it is very important for serious scientists to know the limits of their scientific claims and don’t overextend without proper justified support.

Of course, I might be wrong, and it will be wonderful if someone can explain to me what I missed so that I can learn and understand. If I am mistaken, it will be my pleasure to correct this article.

The Price of RIM averting BlackBerry ban in UAE

Saturday, 9 October, 2010

On the surface, it seems nice that RIM averts BlackBerry ban in UAE. For those who actually knows more about security like Bruce Schneier, here he talked about the possible price RIM might have paid in detriment to RIM users’ secure communications. Have a read of this telling excerpt,

“Am I missing something here? RIM isn’t providing a file storage service, where user-encrypted data is stored on its servers. RIM is providing a communications service. While the data is encrypted between RIM’s servers and the BlackBerrys, it has to be encrypted by RIM — so RIM has access to the plaintext.

In any case, RIM has already demonstrated that it has the technical ability to address the UAE’s concerns. Like the apocryphal story about Churchill and Lady Astor, all that’s left is to agree on a price.”

Without transparency of the compromises made, reading the following gives me no additional confidence of RIM’s “promise”,

“In a response to news of the agreement with the UAE, a RIM spokesperson e-mailed CNET the following statement dated today:

RIM cannot discuss the details of confidential regulatory matters that occur in specific countries, but RIM confirms that it continues to approach lawful access matters internationally within the framework of core principles that were publicly communicated by RIM on August 12.””

The following excerpted opinion makes sense to me,

“I’m actually sympathetic to the need for government to engage in surveillance where appropriate. But even if you think you can trust the government not to abuse this access—and I don’t think you can—backdoors in systems like RIM’s Blackberry e-mail may become available to other parties, including criminal enterprises.”

Wiretapping the Internet

Monday, 4 October, 2010

Here is an excerpt from Bruce Schneier’s insightful article “Wiretapping the Internet” (emphasis added),

“Surveillance infrastructure is easy to export. Once surveillance capabilities are built into Skype or Gmail or your BlackBerry, it’s easy for more totalitarian countries to demand the same access; after all, the technical work has already been done.

Western companies such as Siemens, Nokia and Secure Computing built Iran’s surveillance infrastructure, and U.S. companies like L-1 Identity Solutions helped build China’s electronic police state. The next generation of worldwide citizen control will be paid for by countries like the United States.

We should be embarrassed to export eavesdropping capabilities. Secure, surveillance-free systems protect the lives of people in totalitarian countries around the world. They allow people to exchange ideas even when the government wants to limit free exchange. They power citizen journalism, political movements and social change. For example, Twitter’s anonymity saved the lives of Iranian dissidents — anonymity that many governments want to eliminate.

Yes, communications technologies are used by both the good guys and the bad guys. But the good guys far outnumber the bad guys, and it’s far more valuable to make sure they’re secure than it is to cripple them on the off chance it might help catch a bad guy. It’s like the FBI demanding that no automobiles drive above 50 mph, so they can more easily pursue getaway cars. It might or might not work — but, regardless, the cost to society of the resulting slowdown would be enormous.”

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