NIST eyes signature revision

It has been a long wait, but the federal
information technology community may soon get what it has long wanted—a significant
revision of the federal standard for digital signatures.


Many IT managers have been awaiting the changes since last May, when NIST issued a
request for comments regarding proposed changes to Federal Information Processing Standard
186, the Digital Signature Standard. NIST officials received those comments in August.


The comments made it clear that most federal IT professionals want and need
alternatives to the current Digital Signature Algorithm, NIST officials said.


Alternatives to DSA, including public-key algorithms such as the RSA algorithm from RSA
Data Security Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., and elliptic curve technology, would let
agencies design and implement public-key signature systems more efficiently and
effectively, officials said.


The holdup in the revision has nothing to do with NIST and everything to do with the
American National Standards Institute, said Edward Roback, a computer specialist in
NIST’s Computer Security Division.


"The standards process has moved a little slower than we had hoped, but rather
than us doing something that is inconsistent with the voluntary standards process, we are
waiting for ANSI to complete its work," Roback said. "When the standards are
finalized by ANSI, we will be able to adopt them by reference."


Making RSA and elliptic curve algorithms alternatives to the is important because DSA
never has found the kind of widespread adoption in the commercial software arena that RSA
has enjoyed, IT managers said.


"From our perspective, it is crucial for NIST to recognize the immediate need to
include RSA—the de facto commercial standard for digital signatures—within FIPS
186," said Allen Church, chairman of the Legal and Policy Working Group for the
Federal Public-Key Infrastructure Committee.


The committee is part of the General Services Administration’s Office of
Governmentwide Policy.


"The fact that RSA technology can be found within numerous commercial
off-the-shelf products prevalent in both the private sector and government should dictate
that FIPS 186 be revised to include RSA," he said.


NIST guidelines prohibit agencies from using commercially available security products
because they don’t use the DSA standard. Agencies must first apply for a waiver to
use an algorithm other than DSA, which can be a time-consuming process, officials said.


The Social Security Administration earlier this month became the most recent agency
granted a waiver to use commercial software products incorporating RSA encryption
technology [GCN, June 15, Page 3].


The key is having effective encryption technologies that people will be willing to
learn and use, said John-Paul Brennan, senior information systems security officer at the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "To the degree that we provide tools
people can’t use or don’t feel comfortable using or can’t easily use, we
are not really providing the protection we need," he said.


Along with the RSA standard, the revised FIPS 186 would include the option of using the
elliptic curve algorithm, a lesser-known technology based on a mathematical model called
the elliptic curve. The technology generally is thought to be quite
efficient—especially in the areas of smart cards and other hardware
encryptors—but few products incorporate it.


"Elliptic curve is sort of a bet against something bad happening with RSA,"
said Tom Dunigan, a staff research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak
Ridge, Tenn.


"There are not that many software packages that use it today, so there isn’t
much of a demand yet," Dunigan said.


But not everyone agrees that both technologies should be added to FIPS 186. Critics
argue that although DSA and elliptic curve techniques are both freely available under
terms consistent with ANSI patent policy, RSA is not.


RSA technology is, in fact, the property of RSA Data Security, and the company can pick
and choose the organizations to which it licenses its technology.


Meanwhile, the long wait for NIST’s revision may end soon. ANSI recently issued
the RSA algorithm for consideration by its members. If there is consensus in favor of the
standard, NIST will start the paperwork to recognize RSA, Roback said.


"We’ll probably do this in stages," he said. "After one of the
standards is approved by ANSI, I would anticipate that we would recognize it in our
federal standard reasonably soon."

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