NIST launches post-NSA review into crypto guidance

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Updated: Addressing concerns over compromised algorithms.

The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today said it has commenced a review of its cryptographic standards, following recent claims the country's National Security Agency deliberately weakened some of the encryption schemes it helped develop.

In December last year, it was widely reported that the spy agency had paid EMC-owned security company RSA US$10 million to weaken the Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator algorithm.

RSA has denied the claims that it had entered into a secret contract with the NSA to incorporate a the flawed Dual EC random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries.

Dual_EC_DRBG was later endorsed by NIST, after the NSA said that the US government had been using the algorithm for some time.

Following the revelations, NIST began an internal review of its development process and pledged to seek public input as an independent review into concerns that it had endorsed the compromised algortithms.

The institute announced today that it has put its standing advisory panel, the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT), onto the task of assessing its existing crypto standards. 

The VCAT has welcomed a panel of outsiders to conduct an independent study, including Google's Vint Cerf, Steve Lipner from Microsoft, Ron Rivest of MIT (who along with Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman developed the RSA cryptosystem), as well as Edward Felten from Princeton University.

Felten told SC Magazine today that the panel will investigate how a technology becomes a standard and how NIST conducts the standards process, as well all reviewing specific assessments that have moved through the NIST process to date.

NIST approached each of the individuals, he said, in an effort to "rebuild confidence in the encryption standards process."

"NIST has been viewed as a gold standard for cryptography, and has provided a lot of value," Felten said.

"It is a time consuming process to choose a standard in this field, so most people in the industry have followed NIST's lead up until now. It would be a shame if that trust were to be lost - there is a lot of legitimate concern about the relationship between NIST and the NSA."

The best outcome, he said, would be "a set of recommendations that are deemed credible in the community, to help NIST rebuild the trust of the community." NIST needs to reassure the information security community, he said, that its standards "operate in the interest of the security of users."

The panel members will provide individual assessments to the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT) in June this year. VCAT will review these and provide its recommendations to NIST at a later date.

NIST is the primary US government agency in charge of developing technology and other industry standards, and has a budget of US$850 million for this year covering the operations of 3,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and other staff.

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