Is the cryptopocalypse nigh?

I’ve been traveling a bit over the past couple of weeks, so I haven’t had much of a chance to keep up on blogging. One consequence is that I completely missed my chance to say something about, well, anything that happened at BlackHat or Def Con.

Which is too bad, since a surprising amount of crypto stuff did go down! One thing that I wish I’d had a chance to talk about was a presentation at BlackHat called ‘The Factoring Dead‘ by Tom Ritter, Javed Samuel and Alex Stamos. (Thomas Ptacek was also involved, but he insists that he did nothing and they only included him out of pity.)

Although I don’t quite agree with the premise of this presentation, talks like it are fun — in the way that zombie movies are fun — because you get to abandon reality and think about some non-serious things for a while.

Factually, the presentation addresses some new results on the discrete logarithm problem published by Antoine Joux and his co-authors Razvan Barbulescu, Pierrick Gaudry and Emmanuel Thomé — developments the presenters cite as a very serious reason for people to get worried. And we’re not talking about the usual ‘you’re going to use crypto wrong’ kind of worry, but a more earthshaking kind: namely that RSA and Diffie-Hellman and DSA are soon going to be broken altogether.

Now let me be clear that Ritter, Samuel and Stamos and even lame, non-contributing Ptacek (henceforth RSSp) are all smart guys. In fact, I would venture to say they’re probably much more familiar with the Joux et al. work than I am since they seem interested in the details. Me, I like my hardness assumptions the way I like my hamburgers: neatly ground up and without the mooing. I could live my whole life without voluntarily digging into the efficiency of discrete logarithm solvers in fields of small characteristic.

Moreover, it’s hard to really argue with the content of RSSp’s presentation, since the bulk of what they do is to simply present facts. There really have been some major recent advances in solving discrete logarithms over certain special fields. There have been major attacks in the more distant past that took us by surprise. And yes, it would really awesome if people stopped fiddling with 1024-bit RSA keys and moved to elliptic curve crypto.

What’s concerning is the conclusions they (and other sources) have reached: namely, that factoring-based cryptosystems could be dead in just a few years. This kind of thing could incite panic! (I mean, it could if people actually cared about cryptography. Which unfortunately they mostly don’t.)

So let’s spend some time examining this.

Razvan Barbulescu, Emmanuel Thomé
and Antoine Joux hungrily eye a defenseless
discrete logarithm instance.
(Source: Steven Galbraith)

The background

The jumping off point for RSSp’s slides is a set of recent advances made by Joux and subsequently by Barbulescu, Gaudry, Joux and Thomé. The discrete logarithm problem (which you can learn about in this highly informative video) is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it’s believed that in many settings, the discrete logarithm problem is difficult to solve. Second: that assumption is critical to the security of many of the cryptosystems we know and love — for example, Diffie-Hellman and DSA.

Now the Joux and Barbulescu et al. results are important work, and really do deserve attention from cryptographers and non-cryptographers alike. What they show is that there exist relatively efficient algorithms for solving discrete logarithms in certain very specific types of field. Even more amazingly, the new algorithms are efficient enough to actually implement and run — against parameters that were previously thought to have cryptographic security!

Indeed this has already had some (limited) impact on practitioners in the research community. For example, many of the pairing-based cryptography libraries I work with ship with parameters that are now deemed to be too risky thanks to these new attacks. However — and this is key — these are research libraries. To my knowledge, none of these fields is actually being used in deployment, let alone standardized cryptography.

In other words, this is the kind of result that should receive (and has received!) lots of attention from cryptographers. But not necessarily from people who use cryptography. And here’s why.

You see, while the Joux and Barbulescu et al. algorithms really are efficient, they only work in fields with very specific properties. Namely, the fields must have small characteristic. Indeed, this feature of the field is critical to certain key steps of the algorithm. Take this property away and you still get some advances over the previous state of the art, but the advances are decidedly more theoretical.

Which brings us to the payoff: all of the fields we use to implement most cryptography — things like (non-elliptic-curve) DSA, Diffie-Hellman, and even the fields we use to implement NIST standard elliptic curves — are prime fields and hence don’t have the necessary properties to make the Joux results meaningful. Hence these attacks don’t seem to apply. Moreover there’s really no good reason to believe that they will anytime soon.

The BlackHat presentation

Which brings us to the RSSp BlackHat presentation. The overall premise of RSSp’s presentation is that advances happen rapidly. It’s not unprecedented for theoretical attacks in the literature to rapidly morph into real things that keep security engineers up at night. They also point out that attacks on the DLP have closely tracked attacks on factoring, both in the classical and the quantum world. (Ok, they don’t say the last part but it’s also true.)

RSSp also correctly imply that we should be switching away from cryptosystems that rely on the hardness of the (field-based) discrete logarithm problem, and should instead be moving to cryptosystems based on the elliptic curve discrete logarithm problem (ECDLP).* This is because none of the efficient attacks on DLP — including Joux’s algorithms — seem to apply in the (standardized) EC setting.

Lastly, they correctly point out that cryptosystems based on factoring and (field-based) Discrete Logarithms are already being deprecated by organizations like NIST for a variety of good — though not panic-related — reasons. Mostly this is because our current pre-Joux algorithms against those settings have made it too costly to get long-term (256-bit) security; you just need enormous keys. This was the case before Joux came along, and it’s still the case now.

The last point RSSp make is also absolutely correct: we should be switching to elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) as soon as possible, in part just so people can start using high-security cryptosystems without paying performance and bandwidth through the nose for the privilege. This isn’t totally academic, since — as Thomas Ptacek reminds me — we’re getting close to the death of 1024-bit keys. If your adversary is the NSA, anyway.

(It also doesn’t hurt that getting more people on this bandwagon will reduce the number of people rolling their own RSA implementation.)

So should we stock up on canned goods and move to Vermont?

Vermont is lovely. But you shouldn’t move there because of this presentation.

In fact this is hardly the first time we’ve seen a major breakthrough against an important cryptographic problem. In the 90s it was fast number field sieving against factoring-based systems and slightly later, things like the MOV attack on the ECDLP. In both cases, there was a small degree of panic, but ultimately a pretty mild result: cryptographers carefully examined the attack and chose new parameters that made it impractical. Then everyone went back to business.

In this case it looks like we’ve already got a set of parameters that keep us safe, so it’s even more unlikely — that except for a few researchers doing what researchers do — any of us will have to think about this in three years or five or even ten.

And by the way, you should not believe this because I say so — that would be foolish. You should believe it because the people who work in this area also don’t seem to think it’s an issue. If you doubt this, go to CRYPTO this week look for people running around with their hair on fire. The number should be barely higher than usual.

What would we do if there was a real cryptpocalypse?

Right! If we’re going to gin up a cryptpocalypse let’s have a real one. What if in 2015, Joux and his co-authors publish a new algorithm that efficiently solves the DLP in prime fields and at realistic key sizes, and moreover has a factoring analog that breaks RSA? Well, this would certainly be very bad for everything we’ve encrypted in the past, but at least we’d have an immediate solution: a rapid transition to elliptic curve crypto. Whew!

But this is not much fun: like watching an alien invasion movie where the aliens are allergic to water.

So let’s go way out on a limb and imagine that in 2017, after everyone has piled into ECC, Joux et al. and a team from the University of Waterloo team up to publish a revolutionary new attack that reduces ECDLP to roughly the hardness of field-based DLP. What would happen then?

Well, this would be really bad.

Let me reiterate that there’s a reason we like our current batch of public-key cryptosystems — EC, field-based and factoring-based systems. They’re relatively easy to understand, they’ve all been studied quite a bit. But most importantly: they’re really efficient.

Once you leave this domain you enter a region that the maps label with ‘here be dragons‘. Not because this space is empty. It’s just that there are relatively few efficient schemes that have received anywhere near the level of study that our beloved ones have.

Probably the oldest and most familiar of the alternative encryption schemes is the McEliece cryptosystem, which was developed way back in 1978 (that’s one year after RSA, in case you’re keeping score at home). McEliece and its modern variants are based on problems in algebraic coding theory: they depend for security on the hardness of decoding general codes, as well as some assumptions about the specific code used.

McEliece is surprisingly fast and (so far as we know) quite secure. There’s only one major problem: the public keys are big. According to a 2008 analysis by Bernstein, Lange and Peters, achieving security equivalent to a 3072-bit RSA key (aka the ‘128 bit’ symmetric-equivalent security level) requires a stunning 187 kilobyte McEliece public key. Moving up to 256-bit security — notably hard even for RSA — takes this to nearly 1MB. Recent improvements may cut that down a bit, but they’re still relatively unstudied.

Another possibility is to use Lattice-based cryptosystems. While there are several in the research literature, one of the most studied is the NTRU cryptosystem. I won’t confess to caring much about NTRU, except to note that it’s relatively well-studied by the standards of such alternative schemes and even shows up in some standards. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean everyone loves it. The inventors also hold a patent on it.

Lastly, for signatures at least we can always fall back on old standbys such as hash based signatures, which should hold us as long as Joan Daemen’s team can think up new hash functions.


We live in frightening times and yes, it’s always tempting to peek under the bed and imagine scary monsters. In practice, the reality is probably a bit more mundane.

As much as we love to read stories of solitary mathematicians making revolutionary leaps in their unlit apartment, this is rarely how things go. Even the most significant advances are usually telegraphed via a series of public, widely-read research papers.

In other words: when RSA and DSA really are in danger you’ll know about it. Just look for a bunch of cryptographers running around with their hair on fire.


* By ‘based on’ I don’t mean that these cryptosystems necessarily reduce to the ECDLP, but rather that their security depends upon the hardness of the ECDLP.

3 thoughts on “Is the cryptopocalypse nigh?

  1. Nice blog post! Two quick comments:

    The patent that you cite expires August 19, 2016, so if we live in the future (2017), the NTRU is unpatented! In fact, the ''only'' thing that you can be sure is unpatented is something that *was* patented 20 years ago.

    Second, yay for hash-based digital signatures. And if you would like a fast secure hash function with that, you could use this one:

  2. that sounds like a good script for a blockbuster movie, with brad pitt saving earth by pulling the magical crypto algorithm out his a** while fighting zombies who are exceptionally smart and infiltrating nsa!

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