Updated crypto standards will have an impact on security products

SAN FRANCISCO — New federal standards in the works for the Secure Hashing Algorithm and cryptographic modules will establish new requirements for vendors selling security products in the government market, and companies at this week’s RSA Security Conference are preparing for the change.

The competition to select the new SHA standard for government has moved into the second round with the selection by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of 14 semifinalist algorithms. Final adoption of the new standard, which will become SHA-3, is not expected until 2012. But the old SHA-1 algorithm is due to be retired at the end of this year, to be followed by retirement of the current SHA-2 suite after adoption of the newest version, and agencies will have to adapt their systems to the new environment.

“Given the extended use of SHA-1 throughout many technologies, are they ready for the change?” asked Jim Peterson, chief scientist for PKware. “What we are not hearing yet is reaction to the upcoming changes. We are working to ensure that our customers in the government space are aware that it is coming and that our products will remain in compliance.”

Also in the works is a revision of the Federal Information Processing Standard 140, “Security Requirements for Cryptographic Modules.” A second draft of FIPS 140-3, which eventually will supersede the current FIPS 140-2, has been released for public comments, which are due by March 11.

“The standards in 140-2 are really getting long in the tooth,” said Paul Kocher, president and chief scientist of Cryptography Research Inc. “140-2 was behind the times when it came out and a lot of time has passed since then.”

FIPS 140-1 was issued in 1994, with a requirement that it be reviewed every five years. The review and revision process can take several years and FIPS 140-2 was approved in 2001. Advances in technology soon outpaced this version and another review began with a request for comments in January 2005. The original timeline for FIPS 140-3, which has slipped, called for it to be approved by May 2006 and for FIPS 140-2 to be retired in May 2007, although products validated under the previous standard still could be used.

It is difficult for the standards-making process to keep up with pace of technological change, Kocher said. “The sophistication of what can be done in a security module for a given price has changed by orders of magnitude,” he said. “When a standard comes out, it reflects the state of the art a couple of years before.”

Kocher said there are elements of the draft standard that need improvement, such as requirements for more robust countermeasures against specific types of attacks. One thing he found puzzling in the draft is that some security requirements apply only to single-chip modules and not to multi-chip implementations. But he said he generally is pleased with the document.

“The overall goals and structure are good,” he said. Although it is imperfect and inevitably will be quickly outdated, “the new version is badly needed right now. FIPS 140-3 is not blazing new trails, but it is a big improvement over what we have right now. It will make a significant difference in protecting the government from cyber attack.”

The competition for a new hashing algorithm began with the submission of 64 algorithms to NIST in 2008. After being reviewed and analyzed by the crypto community, 14 made the first cut in January and the selection of five finalists is expected by the end of this year, with adoption of the new standard, which will become SHA-3, expected in 2012.

A hashing algorithm is a cryptographic formula for generating a unique, fixed-length numerical digest — or hash — of a message. Because the contents of the message cannot be derived from the hash and because the hash is to a high degree of probability unique for each message, it can be used to securely confirm that a document has not been altered. It also can be used to effectively sign an electronic document and link the signature to the contents.

With the adoption of the new standard, products such as PKware’s SecureZIP, which currently supports the SHA-2 suite of algorithms, will have to adopt the stronger SHA-3 to remain in the government market.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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