Columbia crypto box

Bill Stewart bill.stewart at
Sat Feb 8 18:26:53 EST 2003

>On Sat, Feb 08, 2003 at 01:36:46PM -0500, Adam Fields wrote:
> > On Sat, Feb 08, 2003 at 01:24:14PM -0500, Tim Dierks wrote:
> > > There may be more valid reasons for treating the device as secret; some
> > > categories that come to mind include protecting non-cryptographic
> > > information, such as the capabilities of the communication channel. 
> Also,
> > > many systems on the shuttle are obsolete by modern standards, and it's
> > > possible that the communications security is similarly aged.
> >
> > Isn't it also possible that the device contains a physical key of some 
> kind?

Mom, can I borrow the keys to the Space Shuttle?

 From a cryptographic perspective,
a "physical key" is just a ROM containing some bits,
or else a smart-card containing some bits it doesn't tell you directly,
but either way the only thing magic about the physical container
is whether the operator needs to know the bits or not.

These days nobody *has* a better cryptosystem than you do.
They might have a cheaper one or a faster one,
but for ten years the public's been able to get free 
planet-sized-computer-proof crypto,
and if you don't like it, you can switch from 3DES and 1024-bit RSA to
5DES and/or 4096-bit RSA.

That doesn't mean that the space shuttle has that quality crypto
for its critical operational communications - its computers were antique
compared to 
commercial-off-the-shelf-non-radiation-hardened-non-shock-proofed PCs,
so it could be running on really lame 60s NSA hardware crypto.
The tradeoff with that kind of equipment was using good key hygiene
(doesn't matter too much if the key gets stolen as long as you know,
and as long as you can wait for the guy with the briefcase handcuffed to 
his wrist),
but also using Obscurity to make cryptanalysis difficult.

So it's possible that they're running some crypto that's lame enough that
if somebody recovers it, they'll be able to crack the algorithms,
which might let them crack the keys for some other shuttle,
or it's possible that it will let them learn enough about old NSA crypto
and maybe the KGB can decode some old messages from somebody,
which might still have some value to somebody (learning 60s/70s military 
It'd be lame, but it's possible.

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