[Cryptography] Opening Discussion: Speculation on "BULLRUN"

John Gilmore gnu at toad.com
Fri Sep 6 20:22:26 EDT 2013

Speaking as someone who followed the IPSEC IETF standards committee
pretty closely, while leading a group that tried to implement it and
make so usable that it would be used by default throughout the
Internet, I noticed some things:

  *  NSA employees participted throughout, and occupied leadership roles
     in the committee and among the editors of the documents

  *  Every once in a while, someone not an NSA employee, but who had
     longstanding ties to NSA, would make a suggestion that reduced
     privacy or security, but which seemed to make sense when viewed
     by people who didn't know much about crypto.  For example, 
     using the same IV (initialization vector) throughout a session,
     rather than making a new one for each packet.  Or, retaining a
     way to for this encryption protocol to specify that no encryption
     is to be applied.

  *  The resulting standard was incredibly complicated -- so complex
     that every real cryptographer who tried to analyze it threw up
     their hands and said, "We can't even begin to evaluate its
     security unless you simplify it radically".  See for example:


     That simplification never happened.

     The IPSEC standards also mandated support for the "null"
     encryption option (plaintext hiding in supposedly-encrypted
     packets), for 56-bit Single DES, and for the use of a 768-bit
     Diffie-Hellman group, all of which are insecure and each of which
     renders the protocol subject to downgrade attacks.

  *  The protocol had major deployment problems, largely resulting from
     changing the maximum segment size that could be passed through an
     IPSEC tunnel between end-nodes that did not know anything about
     IPSEC.  This made it unusable as a "drop-in" privacy improvement.

  *  Our team (FreeS/WAN) built the Linux implementation of IPSEC, but
     at least while I was involved in it, the packet processing code
     never became a default part of the Linux kernel, because of
     bullheadedness in the maintainer who managed that part of the
     kernel.  Instead he built a half-baked implementation that never
     worked.  I have no idea whether that bullheadedness was natural,
     or was enhanced or inspired by NSA or its stooges.

In other circumstances I also found situations where NSA employees
explicitly lied to standards committees, such as that for cellphone
encryption, telling them that if they merely debated an
actually-secure protocol, they would be violating the export control
laws unless they excluded all foreigners from the room (in an
international standards committee!).  The resulting paralysis is how
we ended up with encryption designed by a clueless Motorola employee
-- and kept secret for years, again due to bad NSA export control
advice, in order to hide its obvious flaws -- that basically XOR'd
each voice packet with the same bit string!  Their "encryption"
scheme for the control channel, CMEA, was almost as bad, being
breakable with 2^24 effort and small numbers of ciphertexts:


To this day, no mobile telephone standards committee has considered
or adopted any end-to-end (phone-to-phone) privacy protocols.  This is
because the big companies involved, huge telcos, are all in bed with
NSA to make damn sure that working end-to-end encryption never becomes
the default on mobile phones.

	John Gilmore

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