Do We Need Cryptography?
12.1 Do We Need Cryptography?
One of the first steps in building a secure embedded system is to see if cryptography is actually needed. Whenever security is discussed, many engineers will immediately think of cryptography as the
solution, when in fact, many options may exist that do not strictly require cryptography. Sure, cryptography is an important part of securing applications, but it is not a security panacea, nor is it always necessary for building a secure system.
To many people, cryptography is a mysterious and confusing, almost magical area of computer science that is reserved for cloistered geniuses at top academic institutions and the US National Security Agency. The NSA is mysterious and secretive, and it is believed to employ some of the greatest cryptographers in the world, only adding to the idea that cryptography is an untouchable discipline.
There have been some attempts over the last couple of decades to bring cryptography out from behind its cloak of mystery, most notably with the publication of Applied Cryptography by renowned security expert Bruce Schneier. Schneier, more than any other individual, has brought cryptography into mainstream computer science by unveiling the techniques employed in most common cryptographic algorithms.
That being said, a stream of inaccurate portrayals of cryptography in Hollywood and television, combined with unrelenting advertising campaigns for various security products, have only served to keep those not involved directly in computer science in the dark. For this reason, it can be difficult to explain to managers or hardware engineers what exactly cryptography is, let alone convince them that it will not solve their security problems.
Given the confusion surrounding cryptography, it can be extremely difficult for a systems engineer to determine what type of cryptography, if any, is needed. The truth is that in some circumstances, no cryptography is needed at all. For instance, if you do not care about anyone seeing the information being transmitted, but rather you are only concerned that it is not tampered with in transit, you really do not need a complete cryptographic suite to suit your needs.
For example, let's take a look at publicly available stock market reports. For many investors, keeping tabs on the latest price of a stock can mean thousands or millions of dollars being made or lost. The price of stock in a public company is readily available, but if someone were able to change that price in transit during a trading session, that person would be able to wreak havoc upon unknowing investors. Obviously, there is a security risk for any system that transmits this data, but we do not need to hide it from anyone (unless your goal is to provide only your customers with the most up-to-date information, but that is another matter). Instead, we can just use a simple hash algorithm to verify the integrity of the data being transported. Not being a full-blown encryption scheme, the system's requirements can be lowered to support just the hashing (or those resources could be used for improving the performance of other parts of the system).
In order to see what type of security an application will need, we can divide applications into several distinct categories based upon the type of information each application deals with. After all, the purpose of computer security is to protect information, so this is a good place to start. The following categories should be sufficient for most applications, ordered from the lowest level of security to the highest level of security:
• No security required (may be optional)applications such as streaming video, noncritical data monitoring, and applications without networking in a controlled environment.
• Low-level security (hashing only, plaintext data)applications delivering publicly available information such as stock market data, data monitoring, networked applications in a controlled environment, and applications requiring an extra level of robustness without concern about eavesdropping. Another example of this would be the distribution of (usually open-source) source code or executables with an accompanying hash value for verifying integrity, usually an MD5 or SHA-1 hash of the files that is to be calculated by the end user and compared to the provided hash.
• Low-medium security (hashing plus authentication)general industrial control, some web sites, and internal corporate network communications.
• Medium-level security (cryptography such as RC4 with authentication, small key sizes)applications dealing with general corporate information, important data monitoring, and industrial control in uncontrolled environments.
• Medium-high security (SSL with medium key sizes, RSA and AES, VPNs) applications dealing with e-commerce transactions, important corporate information, and critical data monitoring.
• High-level security (SSL with maximum-sized keys, VPNs, guards with guns) applications dealing with important financial information, noncritical military communications, medical data, and critical corporate information.
• Critical-level security (physical isolation, maximum-size keys, dedicated communications systems, one-time pads, guards with really big guns)used to secure information such as nuclear launch codes, root Certificate Authority private keys (hopefully!), critical financial data, and critical military communications.
• Absolute security (one-time pads, possibly quantum cryptography, guards with an entire military behind them)used to secure information including Cold War communications between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding nuclear weapons, the existence of UFOs, the recipe for Coca-Cola, and the meaning of life.
The above categories are intended as a rule-of-thumb, not as strict guidelines for what level of security you will want for a particular application. Obviously, your particular application may fit into one of the above categories and require a higher level of security than indicated.
You could also reduce the recommended level of security, but remember that security levels are always decreasing as hardware improveswhat we consider to be "high" security today may not be very secure at all in 10 years. The prime example of this is the fact that 56-bit DES was considered nearly "unbreakable" when it was first introduced, but was broken just 20 or so years later with a concerted effort. Now, more than 10 years after that, DES is practically obsolete, and even the beefed-up triple-DES is showing its age.
If you haven't figured it out by this point, this chapter is primarily focused on applications requiring security up to medium level and some medium-high level (as described in the categories above). If your application falls into the medium-high category or higher, you will definitely want to do some serious research before jumping into implementation. In fact, you should do a lot of research if your application needs security at all.
This book and others will be useful to determine what you need for your application, but you shouldn't ever take one person's or book's viewpoint as gospel. It is highly likely (pretty much guaranteed) that any single viewpoint on security will miss something important that can come back to haunt you later. That being said, we will move forward and attempt to make some sense of cryptography for systems not strictly designed for it.