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More comments on dongles
George Gleason says
"I believe that carrying out the entire crypto operation in the dongle is
preferable to having it only do the secret key RSA processing"
and argues for this position mainly on the basis of host compatibility
I still disagree. Even if all the crypto operations were done in the
dongle, it wouldn't be a "turnkey" device that could operate totally
automatically. You'd still need a way for your host computer to turn
it off and on, to select a public key for encryption or signature
verification, to load new public keys, etc. I.e., you'd have to run
special driver software on the host anyway. So why not limit the
dongle to the specific purpose for which it was designed (protecting
your RSA secret key) and do the less sensitive operations where memory
and cycles are far more plentiful, i.e., on the host?
Limiting the dongle's function to RSA secret key operations also
minimizes the dongle's communication requirements. The only data
you'd have to send to it in normal operation would be short blocks to
be run through your RSA secret key operation, a heavily compute-bound
process. If I want to decrypt a file, I'd send the dongle the IDEA (or
DES) key that had been encrypted with my public key. Once the dongle
responds with the decrypted IDEA key, I can perform the actual IDEA
decryption on my host computer with no further dongle interaction.
Regardless of the file size, this would go at host CPU and/or disk
speed, not the speed of the port that's talking to the dongle.
Similarly for signing -- the MD-5 hashing of the file would proceed at
near disk speed (since MD-5 is so fast) and only the resulting hash
code would have to be passed to the dongle for the RSA secret key
A palmtop DOS machine like the HP-95 or Atari Portfolio would make a
good platform for a prototype dongle. Most have serial ports
(standard or optional), and you could just plug them into a spare
serial port on a PC (again, speed is not critical). The palmtop's
keypad would be used to control the dongle, e.g., by accepting a pass
phrase to decrypt the stored copy of your RSA secret key, so you
wouldn't have to type it into a possibly compromised PC. And they're
small enough to carry around with you, thus making it harder for
somebody to hack.
The only drawback I can see to all of this is that palmtops are not
exactly speed demons, and RSA secret key operations are pretty slow to
being with (much slower than the public key operations, which are less
sensitive). But secret key operations are the heart of RSA, so you
don't have much choice if you want real security.
Since it is a sensitive step, RSA key generation could also be done on
the palmtop (although it would probably take hours) or it could be
done on an external, trusted PC and loaded into the palmtop. If your
main reason for using the dongle is to limit the trust you have to
place in a borrowed PC (as opposed to protecting against your own home
PC being hacked), this may be a reasonable thing to do.
Another idea just occurred to me. If you have a trusted machine (e.g.
your home PC) available to you over the net, you could use it as a
"remote dongle". You'd send it data to be run through the RSA secret
key operation and it would return it. Obviously, to be secure the
network exchanges would have to be encrypted in both directions,
otherwise anybody could either pick up the "remote dongle's" responses
or worse, send it data of his own choosing. A simple symmetric cipher
(IDEA, DES) would be adequate here since you control both ends of the
The main drawback of this approach (other than the need for network
connectivity) is the physical vulnerability of your unattended home