Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hilary calls for a Manhattan Project to break encryption

I note with interest that Hilary Clinton is calling for a Manhattan Project to break encryption. For those of you bereft of a little bit of history or perhaps, not old enough to remember, Hilary is making reference to the initiative to create the first atomic bomb during the second world war.

Hilary is calling for an initiative that is well underway and has been so for years. Security agencies worldwide including our own, have been on a steady march to break all encryption and keep it broken so that they can "enforce the law", or "fight terrorism".

With her call for such a project, she shows a profound ignorance of encryption and that she fails to understand the policy implications of breaking encryption and deceiving people into believing that their communications are secure. I'm sure she isn't alone. Many of the GOP candidates running for president would like to force companies to decrypt encrypted content on demand. Some would like to see a backdoor to encryption.

It is often the case that when a new technology is found and applied, using a straw man like terrorism is a great way to get the public on board with breaking encryption or banning it. But time is not on Hilary's side. Time is on the side of encryption for a number of reasons. First, there is the changing of the guard. People are born, grow old and die. The younger generation are more aware of computers and how they work. They understand encryption better than the adults do. They want good encryption.

Whatever you may feel about encryption, good, nearly unbreakable encryption is here to stay. I say "nearly unbreakable" because it is only a matter of time before one method of encryption is broken and a newer, better algorithm is applied in the same context.

Let's look at why the NSA hates encryption in the first place, the laws of thermodynamics. While researching this issue, I found that someone was kind enough to post an excerpt from Applied Cryptography, by Robert Schneier, an expert in the field. Here is what he has to say:
Longer key lengths are better, but only up to a point. AES will have 128-bit, 192-bit, and 256-bit key lengths. This is far longer than needed for the foreseeable future. In fact, we cannot even imagine a world where 256-bit brute force searches are possible. It requires some fundamental breakthroughs in physics and our understanding of the universe.
One of the consequences of the second law of thermodynamics is that a certain amount of energy is necessary to represent information. To record a single bit by changing the state of a system requires an amount of energy no less than kT, where T is the absolute temperature of the system and k is the Boltzman constant. (Stick with me; the physics lesson is almost over.)
Given that k = 1.38 × 10−16 erg/K, and that the ambient temperature of the universe is 3.2 Kelvin, an ideal computer running at 3.2 K would consume 4.4 × 10−16 ergs every time it set or cleared a bit. To run a computer any colder than the cosmic background radiation would require extra energy to run a heat pump.
Now, the annual energy output of our sun is about 1.21 × 1041 ergs. This is enough to power about 2.7 × 1056 single bit changes on our ideal computer; enough state changes to put a 187-bit counter through all its values. If we built a Dyson sphere around the sun and captured all its energy for 32 years, without any loss, we could power a computer to count up to 2192. Of course, it wouldn't have the energy left over to perform any useful calculations with this counter.
But that's just one star, and a measly one at that. A typical supernova releases something like 1051 ergs. (About a hundred times as much energy would be released in the form of neutrinos, but let them go for now.) If all of this energy could be channeled into a single orgy of computation, a 219-bit counter could be cycled through all of its states.
These numbers have nothing to do with the technology of the devices; they are the maximums that thermodynamics will allow. And they strongly imply that brute-force attacks against 256-bit keys will be infeasible until computers are built from something other than matter and occupy something other than space.
This is the problem that the NSA faces. Breaking encryption is hard. Really hard.

Yet the NSA worries about people breaking their encryption. According to Rob Schneier, they've been looking at the threat of quantum computing as a means of breaking encryption. They've even created a list of encryption methods that are believed to be resistant to quantum computing. That is telling. The problem of breaking encryption is much bigger than most of us imagine.

But for most of us, that is a good thing. If we want to secure our information, encryption is the way to go. If we want to discuss politically sensitive information, without fear of reprisal from the government that should be serving us, right about now, encryption will help to keep that discussion safe.

Encryption is not just a security issue, it is a First Amendment issue and a Fourth Amendment issue. Not only does the Constitution secure for us the right to express ourselves, it reserves for us the right to choose how to express ourselves. The Fourth Amendment secures for us the right to express ourselves, privately.

Hilary is a lawyer and she is well aware of the legal implications of her call for breaking encryption. But she fails to understand that breaking encryption for the government means that not only do the good guys have the keys, the bad guys have them, too. Can she assume liability if a life were lost due to broken encryption? I don't think so.
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