Saturday, March 27, 2010

Some Clarification on the RSA Power Attack

I recently posted on the some new work by researchers at the University of Michigan which showed how an RSA private key can be recovered by sifting through a collection of faulty signatures. The faults are created by lowering the power to the chip computing the signature, causing bits to be flipped in the signature multiplication chain. 

I remarked that the coverage from The Register was a bit unfair in its headline of OpenSSL being broken, which was just the cryptographic library used in the proof-of-concept experiment to test the private key recovery procedure. But as pointed out by Bradley Kuhn, the researchers seemed to stress the weakness of OpenSSL against the attack by mentioning it both the abstract and the conclusion of their paper.

But there have been some other posts bordering on the hysterical. Techie Buzz, 1024 Bit Cracked, New Milestone, leads the chorus of RSA’s demise

The RSA encryption was believed to be quite safe and this level of a crack was not achieved, until now. The methods used here are pretty low level and have given results in 100 hours. The crack which was assumed to take a lifetime with brute force, has taken a mere four days. This breaks the very backbone of RSA which believes that as long as the private key is safe, it is impossible to break in, unless guessed.

The post celebrates the fault-based factoring as an advance on the 768-bit factoring record achieved late last year. However the factoring of the RSA 768-bit modulus was unaided by any tricks, and the researchers used modern factoring methods in a distributed computation amounting to over 10^{20} operations. The results are simply not comparable since the fault-based attack is so advantageous to the attacker.

A more sober review is presented by Phil Brass, of Accuvant Insight, in his post Recent Encryption Research Demystified, where he describes the publicity of the attack as “headline hyperbole”. You should not be too worried about your online banking service since

to carry out this attack on an online banking server, the attacker would need physical access to the online banking server’s power supply, which means they would need to be inside the bank’s data centre.  Given the “wealth” of other targets available to an attacker standing inside of a bank’s data centre, theft of the online banking web server private SSL key by a difficult and time-consuming voltage regulation attack seems rather unlikely.

And as to the key recovery experiment itself

The really strange thing about this paper is that while the researchers claim to have implemented the attack on a full-size SPARC/Linux/OpenSSL workstation, the actual hardware was a Xilinx Virtex2Pro FPGA, which was emulating a SPARC CPU, and which the researchers claim is representative of an off-the-shelf commercial embedded device. It seems as if they are trying to have it both ways – i.e. it is an attack against a full-size workstation, and by the way it also is an attack against something you might see in a typical embedded system.

He provides a good summary of the attack and offers that a better headline would be “Obscure bug in OpenSSL library poses little risk to consumers.”  A similar reality check for the hoopla is given by Nate Lawson of Root Labs Rdist, who begins by recalling that the brittleness of the RSA signature operation was identified in 1997 (referenced by the Michigan researchers), with the advice to verify all signatures very carefully before returning them. Lawson provides some more details on the error checking steps taken for signature computations in OpenSSL and he concludes that a much better job could have been done. He is also a bit sceptical of the experimental environment but finally concludes “this was a nice attack but nothing earth-shattering”.

Finally, there is another de-hyped review by Luther Martin at Voltage, where he refers to the PBA Attack after the initials of the three Michigan authors. He states that

Devices that are designed to be secure, like HSMs and smart cards, filter the power so that you can't do attacks like the PBA attack, and with devices that aren't designed to be secure, there's always an easier way to recover a key from them than doing something like the PBA attack. This means that we won't be seeing hackers using the PBA attack any time soon, but you'd never think this from seeing the way it was reported by the media.

Fortunately for this incident Voltage products use DSA rather than RSA for signatures, so advanced debunking for customers will not be required.

All in all, most everyone agrees (and is happy to say) that the work is clever and worthwhile to undertake, adding to our operational knowledge of cryptography. The publicity was a bit overdone, and probably too many hours were spent by security professionals explaining the circumstances and implications of the attack.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information now I'm aware on those attack.

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