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Gaining trust in OCO crypto code
These thoughts came up at the Mac Crypto conference, but are somewhat more
general than the Macintosh, so I am ccing them to cypherpunks.
OCO, or Object Code Only, a bad idea whose time has not yet past (although
it was part of the reason for the decline of IBM's mainframe operating
systems), is the business practice of keeping the source code for a system
secret. Some companies are applying the idea to cryptographic software, so
the we should think about how we can establish trust in such software.
There are three techniques which may work for all OCO software.
(1) Trust the designer/implementor. Ron Rivest's RC2 and RC4 algorithms
were originally released as OCO algorithms. Rivest's reputation as a
cryptographer established trust in them.
(2) Trust a third party auditing agency. The US military trusts vendor
implementations of cryptographic software because they have been audited by
(3) Reverse engineer the implementation. While laborious, this process is
straight forward. When Netscape started using RC4 in their SSL
implementation, a review of its security became important enough that a
certain anonymous person(s) reverse engineered the implementation and
posted it to the Internet. As a result, the algorithm has undergone peer
If we can't use the above techniques, we have to think very carefully about
what parts of a cryptographic system we can trust by only examining their
inputs and outputs. Here is a list of things we can NOT trust in this
(1) Random number generation. An error (as occurred in a Netscape
implementation), or a deliberate weakness can not be easily detected by
examining only the output of a cryptographic random number generator.
(2) Key generation. There are published ways to encode an RSA secret key
in the corresponding RSA public key. A key generation algorithm which only
uses 32 bits of the random number would be hard to detect, but easy to
break by one who knew its secret. You have to be able to examine in detail
how keys are generated.
Now there are some things we might be able to trust based only on an
examination of the inputs and outputs.
(1) Implementation of a cryptographic algorithm. If we can feed it enough
test cases, and compare the output with a public, well vetted
implementation, we can come to believe that it is correct.
(2) Certain cryptographic protocols. If we can trust one side of a
Diffie-Hellman (DH) key exchange, then we can trust the keys generated
because both sides contribute to the randomness of those keys. However we
can't trust two instances of an OCO DH exchange implementation working with
each other, so this trust doesn't seem to cover many practical instances.
If the OCO protocol implementation can interoperate with a trusted
implementation, then we can start to have some trust in it. However, we
will still have to carefully examine the protocol for covert channels.
This form of trust may be of real-world use.
Bill Frantz | "Lone Star" - My personal | Periwinkle -- Consulting
(408)356-8506 | choice for best movie of | 16345 Englewood Ave.
[email protected] | 1996 | Los Gatos, CA 95032, USA