THE CLIPPER CHIP, AND THE CONSTITUTION

**A. Michael Froomkin**

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`[Page 885]`

Public-Key Encryption and Digital Signatures

There are two kinds of cryptography in this world: cryptography that will stop your kid sister from reading your files, and cryptography that will stop major governments from reading your files.{761}

Cryptography makes it possible to talk privately even if someone is listening in on your telephone line:{762} you can have a secure communication over an insecure channel. Cryptography also allows you to keep electronic records in a form that is easily accessible to you but inaccessible to snoops, whether siblings or governments. Ironclad protection, however, requires effort.

Part of the art of cryptography consists of choosing an appropriate
level of security because, for long texts, the highest-level
encryption can be slow even with a computer.{763} If the purpose
of the encryption is to keep someone from peeking at the answer to a
riddle, printing the answer upside down may be enough. If the purpose
is to keep salacious material out of the hands of the lower classes,
then Latin was for many years the traditional cipher.{764} If the
encryption is used, however, to authenticate wire transfers of funds
or to send messages to submarines in wartime, a high-level method is
required. In each case, the determination is driven by considerations
of the time and effort it takes the sender and receiver to use the
system, the resources that a third-party would`[Page 886]`

likely be willing to devote to
cracking the system, and the costs of guessing wrong.

The strength of a cryptographic system is usually measured by the amount of effort that would be required to crack it by an enemy who knows the algorithm. This means, absent the discovery of a latent vulnerability in the cipher that allows the attacker to take a mathematical short-cut,{765} a "brute-force" attack in which computers try every possible key.{766} Surprisingly, modern cryptography does not require that the algorithm be kept secret. Indeed, the rule of thumb is that ciphers that depend on keeping the algorithm secret are unreliable.{767} In modern cryptography, only the key, and not the method of encryption needs to remain secret to preserve the security of the message.{768}

The optimal cryptographic system would be easy to use and
impossible to crack. The real world imposes tradeoffs between ease
of use and vulnerability to attack,{769} although computers now put very powerful
cryptography within the reach of anyone who has access to a
personal computer (PC). Cryptography can be used to defend against
various forms of attack including decryption by third parties,
modification of messages, and fabrication of authentic-`[Page 887]`

looking but spurious
messages. A strong cryptographic system protects messages that may
be intercepted by an enemy, and also authenticates messages
received.

If the only (known) way to decrypt a cyphertext is to try every
possible key, then a longer key makes for a stronger cipher because
a longer key has more possible values. An eight-bit
{771} key has 2^8 (256)
possible values. A computer would have to try all 256 possible
values to be certain of finding the key, although the average
number of possible values the computer would have to test before
encountering the answer will be only 128. Similarly, if the key is
128 bits long, which is the equivalent of the maximum amount of
information in a sixteen-character message on a personal
computer,{772} a`[Page 888]`

brute-force attack would
require that 2^128 keys be tested to be certain of finding the key.
To put this number in perspective, a computer processing a million
keys per second would require about 10^25 years to complete the
task, an amount of time 10^15 times greater than the estimated age
of the universe.{773}

Although 10^15 times the age of the universe makes for an impressive statistic, it is misleading. Chips capable of trying 256 million keys per second are foreseeable within the decade, and several of these can be harnessed to work together. Trying out keys is often ideally suited to parallel processing. Parallel processing allows a problem to be split up between many computer chips running simultaneously, trying many millions, even billions, of keys per second. The chips need not be part of a single computer: the key-cracking problem can be distributed among large numbers of workstations on a network, with each workstation being only slightly more powerful than today's desktop PCs. Indeed, the problem can be parceled out to several different networks, each communicating with one another only infrequently. A distributed processor of this nature, or a single optimized parallel processor, can try vastly more than a million keys per second, making large keys susceptible to being broken in a reasonable period of time.{774} Parallel processors already on the drawing board might make it possible to break even a 512-bit key at a cost which, although out of reach of the average citizen, would be well within the means of the poorest government.{775} The cryptographer's solution, of course, is to use a longer key.

Exactly how large a key would be vulnerable to an economical
brute-force attack is a matter of debate. Advances in computer
power continue to make longer and longer keys vulnerable, but the
same advances make it easier and cheaper to encrypt and decrypt
with longer keys. If one assumes the existence of economically`[Page 889]`

rational, albeit
immoral, attackers seeking to maximize the return on an investment
in the computing power needed in order to mount a sustained attack,
then high-value secrets are more at risk than low-value ones. They
therefore deserve longer keys. No consensus exists as to how much
security is enough for high-value secrets, however, and in any case
that point is probably well past the security provided by DES.

DES's inventors originally planned to use a 128-bit key, which would
have provided 40 sextillion (40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) times
more security, but the NSA persuaded them that 56 bits sufficed.{776} A 56-bit key
provides a keyspace of 2^56, or 72 quadrillion possible keys.{777} Although this is
a very large number, even upon DES's adoption as the U.S. standard in
1977, critics predicted that an optimized computer costing $20 million
to build could break an average of two 56-bit DES keys a day.
Depreciated over the machine's first five years of service, this would
have worked out to only $5000 per solution.{778} This was and is
a sum well within the reach of many governments, and the price would
be much lower today.{779} DES's inventors estimated that the cost of
building such a computer would be closer to $200 million, or $50,000
per key.{780} If
DES had used the 128-bit key originally contemplated, breaking each
key would have cost an average of $200 septillion in the 1970s, even
using Diffie and Hellman's lowest-cost assumptions. Perhaps as a
result of its shorter key, DES is not considered sufficiently secure
to protect classified data.{781} Despite suggestions from the NSA that DES might
not deserve recertification after 1988,{782} NIST recently
recertified DES as suitable for commercial purposes for five more
years.{783}
`[Page 890]`

Public-key cryptography solves all of these problems. As a result,
public-key cryptography has been described as a "revolutionary
technology," which will make routine communication encryption
ubiquitous.{786} In
a public-key system, each user creates a public key, which is
published, and a private key, which is secret.{787} `[Page 891]`

Messages encrypted with one key
can be decrypted only with the other key, and vice-versa. Thus, if
Alice wants to send a securee-mail message to Bob, and they both use
compatible public-key cryptographic software, Alice and Bob can
exchange public keys on an insecure line. Alice would have to input
her plaintext and Bob's public key. The program outputs the
ciphertext, which is a stream of characters that looks like garbage to
anyone who should happen to see it. When Bob receives the ciphertext,
he inputs both it and his private key to his program, which reveals
Alice's plaintext.
One of the wonderful properties of public-key encryption is that,
so far as we know,{788}
a third party's possession of Alice's public key and a complete
description of the encryption algorithm puts that third party no
closer to deducing Alice's private key or reading her messages than
if the third party had the ciphertext alone. Thus, it is easy to
establish a secure line of communication with anyone who is capable
of implementing the algorithm. (In practice, this is anyone with
a compatible decryption program or other device.) Sender and
receiver no longer need a secure way to agree on a shared key. If
Alice wishes to communicate with Bob, a new recipient with whom she
has never communicated before, Alice and Bob can exchange the
plaintext of their public keys or look each other up in a freely
accessible directory of public keys. Then, Alice and Bob can each
encrypt their outgoing messages with the other's public key and
decrypt their received messages with their own secret private
key.{789}

One drawback, however, is that public-key encryption and `[Page 892]`

decryption is much slower than
commonly used single-key systems such as DES.{790} Thus, although
public-key encryption is ideal for short messages, it is less than
ideal for longer ones, and is particularly unsuitable for high-speed
real-time applications like fast data transfer or telephone
conversations. The speed problem can be overcome, however, by using a
hybrid system. In a hybrid system, two parties who wish to
communicate securely over an insecure medium use a public-key system
to agree on a *session key* which then becomes the one-time key
for a faster, conventional, relatively secure, single-key cipher such
as DES.{791} Each
time the parties initiate a new conversation, they generate a new
session key, which, though lasting for the entire conversation, is
never repeated.

If Alice and Bob are going to change their session key every time
they talk so as to maximize the security of their single-key
cipher, they need a secure means of agreeing on a session key each
time they want to communicate. Ideally, the method would allow
them to choose the session key in public, or on an insecure line,
without fear of eavesdroppers. Public-key cryptography allows
Alice and Bob to achieve this feat in either of two ways. Using
the first method, Alice generates the session key, encrypts it with
Bob's public key, and sends it to him. Bob decrypts the message
with his private key, inputs the session key to his single-key
software or telephone, and then the data exchange or conversation
begins.{792}
Alternatively, the parties can use Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange, in
which Alice and Bob publicly send each other numbers from which
they, and only they, can jointly calculate a session key. In
Diffie-`[Page 893]`

Hellman Key
Exchange, Alice and Bob agree on a number, *b*, which does not
have to be secret, to use as the basis for their calculations.
They also agree, again without any attempt at secrecy, on a large
prime number which will serve as their modulus, *m*. (A
modulus is the base for arithmetic operations. Usually we
calculate in base ten; in binary arithmetic we calculate in base
two. Alice and Bob will calculate using base *m*, where
*m* is a large prime number.) Alice then selects a (secret)
large random number *A*; Bob meanwhile selects a (secret)
large random number *B*. Alice sends Bob a number she
calculates as *b**^A* (modulus *m*). Bob sends
Alice a number he calculates as *b**^B* (modulus
*m*). Both Alice and Bob then compute *b**^AB*
(modulus *m*). This becomes their secret session key.

Diffie-Hellman works because it is computationally easy to
calculate powers of numbers modulus *m*, but very, very
difficult to find the logarithm of a large exponent of a number
modulus *m*. Yet, this is what an eavesdropper would have to
do to compute *b**^AB* (modulus *m*) without knowing
either *A* or *B*. Thus, if *m* is about 1000 bits
long, Alice and Bob can do their calculations in seconds. At the
current state of the art, however, the logarithmic computation
would take a powerful computer a quintillion (a billion billion)
years.{793}

Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange works for real-time communication because the parties can generate a session key at the start of the exchange, but it imposes potentially long delays on e-mail because the parties must exchange several messages to generate a session key before the parties can have a secure conversation. On the other hand, e-mail can be encrypted and decrypted at leisure, so the entire message can use public key encryption rather than just the session key. As a result, all that Bob needs in order to send Alice a secure e-mail is a reliable way of getting Alice's public key.

Key servers provide a simple way of making public keys generally
available. Essentially, a key server is a computer with a white
pages approach to public key management. Bob enters Alice's name
and the key server replies with Alice's public key--if she has
registered it. Key servers, whether run by the U.S. Post Office or
`[Page 894]`

others, are likely to
be an essential element of the National Information
Infrastructure.

Key servers generally work on one of two principles: *the
certification authority* or the *web of trust*. Under the
certification authority paradigm, some central body authenticates
the identity of the registrant when the key is first deposited.
For example, the U.S. Post Office has proposed that it act as a
certifying authority. Alice could then identify herself to the
Post Office by providing identification similar to that currently
required to get a passport. The Post Office would then add her key
to its server, and/or provide Alice with a copy of her public key
signed with the Post Office's private key.{794}

By contrast, there is no central authority for web-of-trust
systems: Alice can upload a key to the key server at anytime. In
order to demonstrate that the key purporting to be
"Alice's" is hers, Alice must then find other persons to
"sign" her key by uploading authentications signed with
their private keys. Typically this is done by meeting face-to-face
and exchanging public keys and showing identification. If Alice
has her key signed by Carol, whom Bob knows or trusts, Bob can
safely assume that the signature purporting to be from
"Alice" is not in fact an impostor's. Suppose, however,
that Alice and Bob do not have any friends in common, but that
Bob's friend Carol has signed Ted's key, and Ted has signed Alice's
key. From Bob's point of view this is not as good as if Carol,
whom he knows, has signed Alice's key, but it is considerably
better than nothing. Bob needs to decide how many intermediaries
he is willing to accept before he considers a public key
unreliable. The increase in the length of the chain of
authentication can be offset by finding multiple routes to Alice.
For example, Bob may still feel reasonably secure if he can
establish three relatively long but independent chains of
authentication.{795}
This web-of-trust approach is the foundation of the PGP encryption
system.{796}
`[Page 895]`

Public-key systems also allow users to append a so-called digital
signature to an *unencrypted* message. A digital signature
uniquely identifies the sender and connects the sender to the
message. Because the signature uses the plaintext as an input to
the encryption algorithm, if the message is altered in even the
slightest way, the signature will not decrypt properly, showing
that the message was altered in transit or that the signature was
forged by copying it from a different message.{798} A digital signature
copied from one message has an infinitesimal chance of successfully
authenticating any other message.{799}

The importance of a Digital Signature Standard (DSS), the
prerequisite to a system of electronic commerce, has not been lost on
the federal government. Nevertheless, for many years NIST was unable
or unwilling to promote a standard. Although NIST had begun working
on a DSS in the early 1980s, its progress was slowed by the close
relation between digital signature and cryptographic systems: an
algorithm that produces a secure digital signature can`[Page 896]`

also be used to produce a secure
cipher. The U.S. government, however, wished to find a DSS which,
although secure enough to be useful, nonetheless could not be used as
an encryption system that the government might be powerless to
break.{800} In
August 1991, NIST announced its selection of the Digital Signature
Algorithm (DSA) which, having been patented by an NSA employee, would
be available royalty-free to all users.{801} NIST then
encountered patent difficulties. These were exacerbated when a U.S.
corporation acquired the rights to the main patent allegedly infringed
by the DSA. In June 1993, NIST announced that it would give the
corporation an exclusive license to the DSA; the U.S. government
would have free use but everyone else would have to pay. Reaction
from industry, which was already gravitating towards a competing
corporation's product and was poised to accept NIST's standard only if
it were royalty-free, was very negative.{802} In May 1994,
NIST announced that it would not give an exclusive license to anyone,
and that the DSA would be available royalty-free after all.{803} The alleged
patent infringement was dealt with by the statement that NIST--has
concluded there are no valid claims."{804} The DSS is now
scheduled to be incorporated into Fortezza PCMCIA chips.

Meanwhile, academic cryptologists, ever vigilant for intentional
weaknesses in government-sponsored cryptography, found an
interesting property in the DSS proposed by NIST and approved by
`[Page 897]`

the NSA. Small "subliminal"
messages can be inserted into the digital signature without the
signer's knowledge.{805}
This property "allows an unscrupulous implementer of DSS to
leak a [small] piece of the [user's] private key with each
signature."{806}
One commentator noted that the DSA "provides the most
hospitable setting for subliminal communications discovered to
date."{807} The
NSA has not let on whether it knew about this feature when it
agreed to the DSS.{808}

The proposed Capstone Chip combines the encryption functions of Clipper with the DSA.{809} It will be available in a PCMCIA card called Fortezza. Thus, if users wish to encrypt computer data transmissions with a government approved algorithm, they will have to take the DSA as part of the package.

Although digital signatures use strong cryptographic algorithms, they raise fewer, and different, policy issues from the Clipper Chip. The U.S. government is not concerned about the world-wide use of authentication software because affixing a signature to a plaintext message does not make that message any harder to read.{810} The real power struggle centers on whether the government will retain the capability to read private electronic messages and listen to private telephone conversations at will.

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