Encryption “backdoor”? No, it’s an gaping archway.

Backdoors are just a non-starter.

Archway

Note: this is probably one of those posts where I should point out that the views expressed in this article aren’t necessarily those of my employer, Red Hat.  Though I hope that they are.

I understand that governments don’t like encryption. Well, to be fair, they like encryption for their stuff, but they don’t want criminals, or people who might be criminals to have it. The problem is that “people who might be criminals” means you and me[1]. I need encryption, and you need encryption. For banking, but business, for health records, for lots of things. This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged on this issue, and I actually compiled a list in a previous post, giving some examples of perfectly legal, perfectly appropriate reasons for “us” to be using encryption. I’ve even written about the importance of helping governments go about their business.

Unluckily, it seems that the Government of Australia has been paying insufficient attention to the points that I have[2] been making. It seems that they are hell-bent on passing a law that would require relevant organisations (the types of organisations listed are broad and ill-defined, in the coverage that I’ve seen) to provide a backdoor into individuals’ encrypted messages. Only for individuals, you’ll note, not blanket decryption.  Well, that’s a relief. And that was sarcasm.

The problem? Mathematics. Cryptography is based on mathematics. Much of it is actually quite simple, though some of it is admittedly complex. But you don’t argue with mathematics, and the mathematics say that you can’t just create a backdoor and have the rest of the scheme continue to be as secure.

Most existing encryption/decryption schemes[3] allow one party to send encrypted data to another with a single shared key. To decrypt, you need that key. In order to get that key, you either need to be one of the two parties (typically referred to as “Alice” and “Bob”), or hope that, as a malicious[5] third party (typically referred to as “Eve”[6]), you can do one of the following:

  1. get Alice or Bob to give you their key;
  2. get access to the key by looking at some or all of the encrypted messages;
  3. use a weakness in the encryption process to decrypt the messages.

Now, number 1 isn’t great if you don’t want Alice or Bob to know that you’re snooping on their messages. Number 2 is a protocol weakness, and designers of cryptographic protocols try very, very hard to avoid them. Number 3 is an implementation weakness, and reputable application developers will be try very, very hard to avoid those. What’s more, for applications which are open source, anyone can have a look at them, so putting them in on purpose isn’t likely to last for long.

Both 2 and 3 can lead to backdoors. But they’re not single-use backdoors, they’re gaping archways that anyone can find out about and exploit.

Would it be possible to design protocols that allowed a third party to hold a key for each encryption session, allowing individual sessions to be decrypted by a “trusted party” such as law enforcement? Yes, it would. But a) no-one with half a brain would knowingly use such a scheme[7]; b) the operational overhead of running such a scheme would be unmanageable; and c) it would only a matter of time before untrusted parties got access to the systems behind the scheme and misused it.

Backdoors are just a non-starter. Governments need to find sensible ways to perform legally approved surveillance, but encryption backdoors are not one of them.


1 – and I’m not even intentionally addressing any criminals who might be reading this article.

2 – quite eloquently, in my humble opinion.

3 – the two tend to go together as there isn’t much point in one without the other[4] .

4 – in most cases. You’d be surprised, though.

5 – at least as far as Alice and Bob are concerned.

6 – guess where the name of this blog originated?

7 – hint: not me, not you, and certainly not criminals.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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