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Security researchers urge tech companies to explain their cryptographic choices

Researchers signed an open letter outlining 10 transparency principles for companies to regain user trust following surveillance revelations

By Lucian Constantin
February 27, 2014 08:42 AM ET

IDG News Service - Fourteen prominent security and cryptography experts have signed an open letter to technology companies urging them to take steps to regain users' trust following reports over the past year that vendors collaborated with government agencies to undermine consumer security and facilitate mass surveillance.

The researchers pointed out as alarming allegations that RSA, the security division of EMC, made a $10 million deal with the NSA to keep a compromised crypto algorithm the default setting in its security product long after the algorithm's faults were revealed. RSA has denied such a deal.

The open letter was signed by well-known computer scientists, cryptographers, developers and security researchers. Among them are Matthew Green, assistant research professor at Johns Hopkins University; Tanja Lange, professor at Eindhoven University of Technology; Bruce Schneier; Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson of the Tor Project; Brian Warner and Zooko Wilcox-O'Hearn of the Tahoe-LAFS Project; Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union and Brendan Eich, CTO of Mozilla Corporation.

The letter was an initiative of the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation and outlines 10 principles, both technical and legal, to which signatories believe technology companies should adhere.

The first principle has to with code integrity and has been expressed by security experts before. There's no easy way to verify how an open cryptographic algorithm has been implemented in closed-source software, so the letter's signatories urged companies to provide public access to source code whenever possible. If companies also distribute pre-compiled binary packages, they should adopt a reproducible build process so users can obtain the same binaries from the source code, the researchers said.

"Both open and closed source software should be distributed with verifiable signatures from a trusted party and a path for users to verify that their copy of the software is functionally identical to every other copy (a property known as 'binary transparency')," they said.

The second principle requires companies to be open about their cryptographic choices and to explain why certain algorithms and parameters were used in their software.

"Make best efforts to fix or discontinue the use of cryptographic libraries, algorithms, or primitives with known vulnerabilities and disclose to customers immediately when a vulnerability is discovered," the researchers said.

Other principles outlined in the letter include:

  • Protecting data in transit at all times with strong encryption to prevent upstream surveillance,
  • Discarding user data that's no longer needed for business operations,
  • Keeping an open and productive dialog with security and privacy researchers,
  • Providing a clear method for researchers to report vulnerabilities,
  • Promptly fixing reported vulnerabilities,
  • Regularly publishing "transparency reports" about government requests for user data,
  • Publicly opposing mass surveillance and efforts to backdoor or weaken security tools and
  • Fighting in courts attempts by governments or third-parties to compromise user security.

This open letter follows another one sent by security and cryptography researchers to the U.S. government in January, deploring the NSA's surveillance activities. In that letter, researchers asked the U.S. government to reject society-wide surveillance and attempts to subvert security systems and instead adopt state-of-the-art privacy-preserving technology.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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