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Review of TriStrata Public Information
Review of TriStrata Public Information
Over the past several months, a new company called TriStrata has been
getting substantial press for a new "one-time pad" cryptography system.
Most of these press reports took at face value the company's claims about
their technology and product, and did not try to analyze whether or not
they were true. Counterpane Systems believes it is important to dig under
the hype and figure out what the real story is behind their technology.
We reviewed the publicly available documentation on TriStrata, and found a
system whose architecture is that of an early-1970s pre-public-key
cryptography security system. Central servers, upon which the security of
every message rests, must be kept absolutely secure; yet they run on
Windows NT. These servers are all powerful, in that they can forge
messages, rewrite audit logs, fake authentication, and lie about anything
else in the system. Users cannot access their files unless they are
connected to this server. TriStrata does not use a one-time pad at all,
and none of the security proofs about a one-time pad apply to their system.
Their reliance on this encryption technology forces them to use security
protocols long abandoned by the rest of the security industry. Even their
performance enhancements bely the fact that encryption is rarely the
bottleneck in any communications system.
Note: For a less-technical summary of this review, please see sections 4.0,
4.1, and 5.0.
2.0 The TriStrata System
The TriStrata system uses a centralized server, called the TESS (TriStrata
Enterprise Security Server). The documentation is not very clear, but
document reference 3 suggests that each company would have its own TESS.
Every encryption or decryption operation requires a "permit" from the TESS.
To encrypt a file or message:
1. The user contacts the TESS over the network. This can be any type of
network, such as the Internet or a local area network.
2. The user and the TESS authenticate each other using a proprietary
protocol called Private Access Line (PAL).
3. The TESS sends a permit to the user machine, which is used to encrypt
the file or message. The TESS also sends a "seal" to the user. This seal
is only readable by the TESS.
4. The user simply stores the seal with the file (if it is encrypted
locally), or sends the seal along with the encrypted message (if it is to
be transmitted to another user).
To decrypt a file or message:
1. The user retrieves the seal and sends the seal to the TESS (along with
the authentication data from the PAL protocol).
2. The TESS opens the seal, and determines whether the user is allowed to
decrypt the data.
3. If the user is allowed to decrypt the data, the TESS sends a
decryption permit to the user.
4. The user's local machine uses this permit to decrypt the file or message.
The TESS keeps full audit logs of all operations, and includes procedures
that allow designated recovery agents within the company to recover the
keys to any file.
The system is claimed to provide identification (who is using the system),
authentication (who sent a message), access control (restriction of access
to authorized users), integrity (assurance message is unaltered), and
non-repudiation (sender cannot deny having sent it). They have received an
export license for their system.
The authentication method used to authenticate the user to the TESS and
vice versa is a crucial part of the security architecture. The TriStrata
documentation contains no further information than that this is handled by
the Private Access Line protocol.
2.3 Encryption Algorithm
The Random KeyStream (RKS) encryption algorithm used by TriStrata is hailed
as "a new fundamental technology." It is claimed to be very fast, but the
documentation only contains raw speeds, without documenting which platform
these speeds were achieved on. The encryption technology is also claimed
to be unconditionally secure. To quote the web site: "No matter how much
mathematical analysis or computing power is applied to the cryptanalysis of
RKS, there is simply no algorithm and no underlying pattern to break. As
Herbert Yardley foresaw in 1931, cryptography as a profession is dead."
3.0 Our Comments
3.1 The Central Server Structure
Cryptographic systems that use a central access control server are nothing
new. The Kerberos protocol uses a central server for similar tasks. Using
such a central server as the TESS has several advantages and disadvantages.
The main advantages are:
- There is a central place that administrates all the access rights. This
makes various administrative tasks easier.
- Revocation of access is automatically supported by the system. No
separate revocation mechanism is necessary.
- The central server can keep comprehensive auditing logs of
The main disadvantages are:
- The central server contains confidential information, namely the master
keys that can decrypt any file. It is thus a very tempting target for
attack. The central server must be very well protected. At the same time,
the server must be reachable from across the network, and must be reliable,
as nothing can work without a functioning server. The end result is a
server that is expensive (due to all the requirements) and that still is an
obvious point of attack.
- The central server is a single point of failure. TriStrata uses a
redundant server structure with fail-over, so that a second server takes
over when the first fails. A fail-over structure protects against
technical errors, but does not necessarily protect against
denial-of-service attacks. The TESS is based on a "security hardened"
version of Windows NT, an operating system that is not known for its
resistance to malicious attacks.
- The system is effectively a closed system. Only users who are registered
at the server can partake in the system. It is not clear how two users
that belong to different servers would communicate. The TriStrata
documentation mentions electronic commerce extensively, but it does not
discuss how two users at two different companies can use the TriStrata
system to communicate with each other.
- Since the server contains crucial confidential information, every company
must run its own server. A failure of the server, such as a leak of the
master keys from the server, can reveal all of the company's information.
This is the kind of task that should not be outsourced. In contrast, the
key server of a public-key-based system is much easier to outsource as it
can be designed so as not to be critical for security.
- The TriStrata solution does not allow a user that is off-line to access
any encrypted files. A salesman that keeps his data encrypted on his
portable computer cannot access the data without contacting the TESS. If
he cannot get network access for some reason (e.g., on an airplane,
mismatched phone plug, etc.), he cannot access his own files.
The TriStrata solution is a return to a very old style of centralized key
management. For some applications this is a good solution, but there are
many situations in which a centralized server is not appropriate. For
example, one function that a central server cannot do well is
non-repudiation between adversarial parties (one of the critical functions
in electronic commerce). The TESS system seems to provide non-repudiation
through inspection of the logs of the TESS. But if a message is sent
between two companies, which TESS do they use? The company that owns the
TESS that is used can manipulate the logs in their own favor. The end
result is that there is no watertight proof that the message was sent or
In effect, this solution takes us back to the days before public-key
cryptography. Since its invention in the late 1970s, the ideas of
certificates, public key infrastructure, decentralized key management,
separation of encryption and digital signature functions, etc., have all
been implemented in response to insecurities in centralized systems. For
example, public-key infrastructures use trusted third parties like the
TESS, but in a public-key system, compromise of the trusted third party
only allows an attacker to issue false certificates, not to decrypt and
We have no further information on the PAL protocol. The documentation does
state that the communication with the TESS consists of a single message
from the user to the TESS, and a single reply back. Elsewhere it says that
the TESS is stateless, which makes it easy to do a fail-over should one
It is not clear to the reviewers how the PAL protocol works, if we assume
it consists of two messages and is stateless for the TESS. These two
properties together would suggest that an attacker can replay requests to
the TESS. If nothing else, this introduces fake entries in the audit log.
Some of these attacks can be hindered by the use of local clocks, but every
solution along these lines we have ever seen is always troubled by clock
We note that the PAL protocol is critical for the security of the overall
system. If an attacker can impersonate another user, then he can request
the proper permit from the TESS to decrypt a file, and will get access
regardless of the security of the actual encryption algorithm. The PAL
protocol deserves careful scrutiny before the TriStrata system is put to use.
The most straightforward attack against the TriStrata system is to
introduce some hostile code into the client's PC (for example, a virus or
Trojan horse). This hostile code can then steal the necessary
authentication information and send it back to the attacker. This type of
attack is a generic attack against any security system, not just the
TriStrata system, but it shows that the "provable security" is at best
limited to a small part of the system and does not extend to the whole system.
To put it bluntly: the TriStrata system does not use the one-time pad
system (Vernam cipher) for encryption. A true one-time pad uses a random
key that is distributed through a separate secure channel. While a
one-time pad is, in fact, theoretically unbreakable when used properly, the
details of using it properly make it entirely unusable in any modern
commercial or military setting.
A true one-time pad gains its unbreakable security from the fact that the
key is as long as the message. Since all keys are equally likely, and a
particular ciphertext could represent any message, given a particular key,
the ciphertext reveals nothing about the plaintext message without the
correct key. These random keys must be entirely random; this usually
requires generating them from some external random source (such as thermal
noise or radioactive decay). And both the sender and the receiver must
have this secret key, which must be exchanged in some fashion which the
attacker cannot penetrate.
The requirement that the keys be as long as the data to be exchanged and
that the key needs to be transported via some secure mechanism makes the
one-time pad system entirely impractical. In order to send a 1 MB message,
the sender and receiver must exchange a 1 MB-long key. Then the sender
could send the message and the receiver could use the key to decrypt it.
The key would then have to be thrown away and never used again. If the
sender wanted to exchange messages with a hundred people, he would have to
pre-agree on different keys between each recipient. For a company with a
thousand employees, this means that there are 499,500 different key sets,
which need to be replenished any time they are exhausted by message exchange.
Because the key has to be as long as the message, there is no way to use an
established system to exchange more keys, since in order to securely send
as 1 MB key a user needs 1 MB of additional pre-agreed key. (And if users
can exchange these keys, why can't they just exchange the messages?) This
means that all keys have to be exchanged via some other mechanism (such as
a courier). This kind of system was used for the U.S.-Soviet teletype "hot
line" and it is occasionally used for paper ciphers and spies, but that's it.
There is no way in which a true one-time pad can be implemented over a
computer network. From the information provided by TriStrata, we believe
that the encryption method used is a keystream method where an algorithm
generates a key stream which is then XORed with the plaintext to generate
the ciphertext. This is known as a pseudo one-time pad, and is also called
an OFB stream cipher. One of the modes of DES works in this manner, as
does the RC4 encryption algorithm. This is not new technology.
A pseudo one-time pad encryption algorithm can be secure, but claiming that
it is secure because it is based on the one-time pad is ridiculous. The
strength of the cipher algorithm depends on the method used to generate the
The speed given for the encryption method is fairly fast, but without
knowing what platform was used to achieve these speeds, no sensible
comparison can be made. To give some comparison material: the leading
candidates for the AES block cipher encryption standard can encrypt data in
about 18 clock-cycles per byte on a Pentium II. A standard 350 MHz desktop
machine thus achieves nearly 20 Mbytes per second. This compares to the
TriStrata claimed speed of 36 Mbytes per second for a standard desktop
machine. The TriStrata figures are faster, but only by a factor of two.
This would be a nice speedup, but it does not present a fundamental
breakthrough in speed.
Reference 4 is a magazine article report that contains more information
about the encryption algorithm. As with any magazine article, the accuracy
of the information is hard to judge. Nevertheless, the information it
provides fits well with the information we have from TriStrata.
The TESS generates a single 1 Mbyte block of random data using a hardware
random number generator. This block is distributed to all clients. (A
second block is used for authentication, but we have no further information
on the algorithm.) The encryption algorithm keeps several pointers into
this random block and derives the random key stream from the data the
pointers point to. This is a known technique, first used by Maurer in his
randomized cipher [Reference 5]. The TriStrata documentation talks about a
virtual keystream of over 10^30 bytes, which would correspond to 5 pointers
into a 1 Mbyte block. This suggests an effective key size of at most 100
bits. On the other hand, the website also claims that it would take 3.5 x
10^33 years to defeat one TriStrata-encrypted message, which would suggest
either a larger key space or a fundamental misunderstanding of the
mathematical properties of Maurer's system.
The random block is the same for all the clients. It has to be, as the
client that does the decryption needs the same random block as the client
that does the encryption (and sending 1 Mbyte blocks around in the permit
is too slow). Therefore, we cannot view this random block as a secret.
After all, a secret shared amongst thousands of users is not a secret any
more. If we want a more conventional representation of the encryption
algorithm, we can represent the random block as a randomly generated 20 by
We have no knowledge about the details of this encryption algorithm, but
the most straightforward variants of this type are susceptible to a
meet-in-the-middle attack on the pointer space. This could reduce the
effective key size to as little as 60 bits.
The journalist did a speed test of TriStrata's file encryption utility. On
a 200 MHz Pentium Pro, 128 MB RAM and PCI Ultra-SCSI disk subsystem it
encrypted a 58 MB file in 18 seconds. This corresponds to a speed of 3.2
Mbytes per second. Presumably this speed is limited by the speed of the
disk I/O. On this platform a traditional encryption algorithm such as
Blowfish can encrypt at 10 Mbytes per second; the super-fast RKS encryption
is presumably faster than this. Although this test does not give us any
real speed data, it does show that encryption speed is not the bottleneck
in most situations. In this situation, the disk I/O is much slower than
the cryptography, making the encryption speed irrelevant.
3.5 Proprietary Encryption Algorithms
The nature of cryptography is such that there is no way to prove that a
cipher is secure, since this amounts to proving a negative assertion: that
there is no way to break it easily. Anyone, from the most unsophisticated
amateur to the best cryptographer, can create an algorithm that he himself
can't break. What is hard is creating an algorithm that no one else can
break, even after years of analysis. And the only way to prove that is to
subject an algorithm to years of analysis by the best cryptographers around.
Because of this situation, the only recognized criterion for secure
cryptographic systems is peer review: having other cryptographers examine a
cipher and attack it. Even cryptographic organizations which operate in
secret, such as the NSA, have an extensive internal peer review system.
>From past experience we know that systems that are kept secret and
presented as "provably secure," "unbreakable," "a
new fundamental technology," or "one-time pad" are usually
not very good at all. Those who say these things generally do not
understand the current state-of-the-art of mathematical cryptography, and
make fundamental mistakes in their system design.
Encryption algorithms that are unpublished have a dismal record. The
literature is littered with the corpses of encryption algorithms that were
broken once they were published. Until TriStrata publishes its algorithm
and it is open to peer review there is no professional reason to presume it
4.0 The Real Problem in Security Systems
It is interesting to note that TriStrata gives a lot of attention to the
encryption algorithm. From all the problems that security systems face at
the moment, the encryption algorithm is probably the least important one.
There are many good encryption algorithms available in the published
literature that can be used for free. TriStrata chose to develop their own
algorithm. Although this can be a lot of fun, it is a decision that is
hard to justify, as new algorithms can only be considered secure after an
ample time of peer review.
Cryptographic systems are broken constantly, but the attacks are almost
never against the algorithms. The really difficult problems in security
systems are key distribution, management, reliability, robustness, etc.
TriStrata uses the solution of having a central server, as necessitated by
its choice of encryption technology. This solution is suitable in some
situations, but there are many problems that cannot be handled by this
approach. In fact, the problems associated with central servers and
centralized key distribution have been driving the development of
public-key--based systems for the last two decades.
TriStrata, by implementing a Maurer-style randomized stream cipher and the
centralized key management it requires, has taken the one piece of the
cryptographic puzzle that we can solve--symmetric encryption--and made what
they perceive to be security improvements. However, they did this at the
expense of the really hard problems in cryptography...ones that their
system does not seem to adequately solve.
4.1 Trust and Security Systems
Whenever someone buys a commercial product, he is trusting that the
manufacturer did a good job designing and building the product. This is
especially important with security products. If someone buys a word
processor and it does not perform as advertised (e.g., the print function
does not work), he will eventually notice (he won't be able to print his
documents). If someone buys an encryption product, it can function
normally (encrypting and decrypting documents successfully), but that is no
indication that it is secure. Security is completely separate from
functionality, and no amount of beta testing can ever uncover a security flaw.
In the commercial world, we rely on the public review process to evalute
the security of systems. Internet security infrastructures, such as IPSec,
PKIX, and SSL, have been discussed and debated for years. Versions have
been proposed, security flaws have been found, fixes have been implemented,
and so on. Cryptographic algorithms in these protocols are ones that have
been around for years, and have had extensive cryptographic review by the
best in the field. Even this is no guarantee of security--implementation
flaws are found (and fixed) in the code that implements these protocols,
but it establishes a certain degree of confidence.
TriStrata has chosen to ignore all public standards in favor of their own
proprietary technology, while at the same time refusing to make technical
details of their technology public. In order to use their system, the
purchaser must trust that their cryptographers are better than the
collective wisdom of the world's academic cryptographers, that their
protocol designers are better than everyone who has worked on the open
Internet protocols over the last few years, that their implementers are
better than everyone who has made and evaluated the public implementations
of those protocols. The purchaser must trust that TriStrata's misuse of
the academic terminology does not reflect a misunderstanding of that
technology, and that their technology is so much better than what everyone
else has agreed upon that it makes sense to make that leap of faith.
In the end, a star-studded board of directors and upper management does not
obviate the need for good science, open systems, and peer review. It's
simply foolish to trust a system that has not been evaluated.
A system like TriStrata's can be made to work within its limitations. It
is certainly not the universal solution to the world's security problems.
However, there is a huge amount of hype and very little substance to the
documentation. Many of the statements made are incomplete, vague, or
suggest facts which cannot be true. The cryptographic claims are wild and
unsubstantiated. Parts are clearly written by someone who does not
understand modern cryptography, and who is not well versed in the
cryptographic literature. Certain areas of the documentation give the
impression that they were written with the intent to deceive the reader,
but ignorance is probably a better explanation. Based on past experience
with systems that made similar unsupported security claims, we are very
skeptical about the security of the TriStrata system.
We reviewed the system as we have reconstructed it from various hints in
the text, as well as conversations with people who have been involved with
the system. Until TriStrata releases technical information about its
product, it is not possible to give a complete evaluation of their technology.
 TriStrata web site, http://www.tristrata.com, on Sept. 22nd, 1998.
 Walter Hamscher, Alastair MacWillson, and Paul Turner, "Electronic
Business Without Fear: The TriStrata Security Architecture," Price Waterhouse.
 "Building a Secure Future with CTR Business Systems and TriStrata
 Dan Backman, "TriStrata: A Giant Step In Enterprise Security,"
Network Computing Magazine, 15 September 1998. Online,
 Ueli M. Maurer, "A Provably-Secure Strongly-Randomized Cipher,"
Advances in Cryptology -- Eurocrypt '90 Proceedings, Springer-Verlag, 1990,
Bruce Schneier, President, Counterpane Systems Phone: 612-823-1098
101 E Minnehaha Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55419 Fax: 612-823-1590
Free crypto newsletter. See: http://www.counterpane.com