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NSA reports prompt NIST to reopen public review of crypto standards

Faced with public concern over reports that the National Security Agency has tried to influence development of cryptographic standards, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is seeking additional public review of a suite of its crypto publications.

In a written statement, NIST defended its standards process as transparent, adding that standards are rigorously vetted in a public process. Nevertheless, “Recognizing community concern regarding some specific standards, we reopened the public comment period for Special Publication 800-90A and draft Special Publications 800-90B and 800-90C to give the public a second opportunity to view and comment on the standards.” The new comment period closes Nov. 6, and comments should be sent to [email protected].

The reopening of public comment is not unusual, said Donna Dodson, head of NIST’s Computer Security Division.

“When the community raises questions and concerns about the guidelines and specifications we put out, we will often open them up again for public review,” Dodson said. This happened several years ago, when possible weaknesses were found in the SHA-1 Secure Hash Algorithm. “We went so far as to hold a competition,” for a new standard algorithm, she said.

The NIST decision came one day after statements from Debora Plunkett, NSA’s director of information assurance, that she intends to recommend that government national security IT systems use the Trusted Platform Module that comes installed on many computers and that future computer acquisitions must include the TPM chip meeting government certifications.

The IT security industry is not worried about reports of weakened standards or backdoors in crypto systems, said Steven Sprague, CEO of Wave Systems, who was attending the Trusted Computing Conference this week where Plunkett made her statements.

“It doesn’t really concern us at all,” Sprague said. There are too many parties, foreign and domestic, participating in the development of standards and manufacture of products for vulnerabilities to be slipped in, he said. “We know what the functionality of the devices is and the possibility of a backdoor is extremely low.”

The TPM chip is a hardware storage device for onboard storage of private keys for access, signing and cryptography. Technical specifications were developed by the Trusted Computing Group, a private organization that participates in industry standards development.

NIST develops and recommends standards for government, including computer security standards, which often are adopted by the private sector. These are published in its 800 series of special publications:

  • SP 800-90A Recommendations for Random Number Generation Using Deterministic Random Bit Generators
  • SP 800-90B, Recommendation for the Entropy Sources Used in Random Bit Generation 
  • 800-90C, Recommendations for Random Bit Generator Constructions

Random number and random bit generation are important because they are used to provide seeds for cryptographic keys, which must be unpredictable to effectively protect the data being encrypted. The NIST documents specify methods for random number generation that can be used with government encryption systems.

Because of the underlying importance of these standards and community concern about their reliability, NIST reopened the public comment period for these publications.

“We have not found anything” that indicates weaknesses, intentional or otherwise, in the specifications, Dobson said. But NIST takes public input seriously, and if vulnerabilities are found the agency will work with the cryptographic community to address them.

NSA is a participant in development of NIST crypto standards because of its recognized expertise and also because of statutory requirements that NIST consult with NSA. The spy agency also is a participant, along with similar agencies from other nations, in development of commercial standards such as those developed by the Trusted Computing Group, Sprague said.

“Generally, they are pretty passive participants,” he said.

The NSA endorsement of the Trusted Platform Module is in line with the agency’s philosophy that computer security needs to be based on open, interoperable standards for core security rather than on proprietary solutions, Sprague said.

“This is significant because one of the challenges to use of the TPM in the government space was whether or not it was approved or unapproved technology,” he said. “Our general impression is that this provides a permission slip for use of existing TPM” chips in computers.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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