RSA keys: no insight whatsoever

I have a deadline coming up so (substantial) posting will be light this week.

For those of you who don’t read the New York Times, the big story of the week is this paper by Lenstra, Hughes, Augier, Bos, Kleinjung and Wachterlet:

Ron was wrong, Whit is right

We performed a sanity check of public keys collected on the web. Our main goal was to test the validity of the assumption that different random choices are made each time keys are generated. We found that the vast majority of public keys work as intended. A more disconcerting finding is that two out of every one thousand RSA moduli that we collected offer no security. Our conclusion is that the validity of the assumption is questionable and that generating keys in the real world for “multiple-secrets” cryptosystems such as RSA is significantly riskier than for “single-secret” ones such as ElGamal or (EC)DSA which are based on Diffie-Hellman.

Lots of people have written insightfully on this topic. See Dan Kaminsky’s post here, for example, or Thomas Ptacek’s excellent multi-part Twitter musing. (Update: much better, see Nadia Heninger’s explanation at the end of this post.)

There must be something wrong with me, because I find it almost impossible to draw any deep insight at all from this work. Don’t get me wrong: the paper itself is a fantastic piece of research; it sets a new standard for data analysis on public keys and certs. I hope we see more like it.

But what’s the takeaway? That two-key systems are insecure? That intelligence agencies have known this for years? Maybe. Whatever. The takeaway to me is that one (or more) RSA keygen implementations had a crappy RNG, or didn’t properly seed its PRG.

That’s really good to know about, but it isn’t the big news that the paper’s title would imply. It doesn’t have any implications for the use of RSA or any other cryptosystem. I’d sure like to solve the mystery of which implementations we need to look out for, and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but that’s literally the only thing I take away from this — so far.

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon. Really, I want to believe. Please help me!

Update: Mystery solved! Nadia Heninger has a post at Freedom to Tinker explaining that most of these keys were generated by embedded devices, and that — through a parallel research effort — they actually know which devices. Once again extremely nice work. Even nicer than Lenstra et al., since it’s actually useful. (I can only imagine how Nadia and her team have been feeling the past two days, seeing ‘their’ result all over the New York Times. That’s responsible disclosure for you.)