How far is the NSA ahead of the public crypto community?

Matt Blaze mab at
Thu May 8 15:04:49 EDT 2008

During the 1980's and 1990's "crypto wars", an occasional topic of  
speculation was
just how much the NSA was ahead of the open/public/academic  
cryptography research
community in cryptanalysis and cipher design.  We wondered (and still  
whether the NSA was merely a strong center of expertise, a bit ahead  
of the rest
of us by virtue of their focused mission and culture, or were they  
more of a
crypto-mathematical superpower, possessing amazing techniques that  
demolish every cipher in the public domain?

For those of us in the unclassified world, there has relatively  
little evidence
to go on beyond the occasional tantalizing technical nugget, and even  
have been hardly uniform in their message.  The impressively well- 
resistance of DES to differential cryptanalysis (apparently called the
"tickle attack" on the inside years before Biham and Shamir's result)  
and the
narrow -- but apparently solid -- resistance of Skipjack to various  
new attacks
suggests a remarkably sophisticated set of decades-old cipher design  
and analysis
tools that the civilian world is only beginning to catch up with.  On  
the other
hand, there have been blunders, like the early problems with SHA and  
the protocol
weaknesses in Clipper, that suggest that the NSA's crypto toolkit  
might not be
all that much sharper than ours after all.

Anyway, there's now a bit more fuel for speculation.  The latest  
batch of (still
partly redacted) publicly-released NSA technical and historical  
includes several policy papers from the 1990's that touch on NSA's  
over crypto in the face of an increasingly sophisticated public research
community (among other factors).  I found one of the most interesting  
frustratingly censored) new documents to address this point was  
"Third Party
Nations: Partners and Targets" from Winter 1989:

This paper discusses the pros and cons (from the NSA's perspective)  
of sharing
cryptologic technology with other countries.  The specifics  
(presumably naming
names of the countries concerned) are all redacted, but what remains  
is a
hypothetical dialog between "liberal" (pro-sharing) and  
"conservative" (anti-
sharing) internal viewpoints.  Page 8 of the PDF (marked as page 17)  
the general spread of cryptographic expertise.    Interestingly, both  
liberal and the conservative sides acknowledge the rapid development  
of public
cryptographic expertise, and this was back in 1989.  The conservative  
relied here not on the NSA's better crypto-mathematics (an advantage  
they seemed to believe was shrinking), but rather on the large gap  
the theory and actual deployment in the non-NSA world (a problem that we
here have long recognized).

Anyway, this isn't big news, since it's essentially what most of us have
suspected all along, but this is the earliest document I'm aware of from
inside the NSA to explicitly address the question.

Personally, I suspect the NSA does have a large advantage in SIGINT
technologies, but in those areas, like demodulation of unknown signals,
for which there's less of a civilian research interest.  The vibrant
crypto research community, on the other hand, has probably evolved to
the point of being a serious competitor to NSA.

On a side note, I've also been enjoying filling in some of the redacted
gaps in the various technical papers.  I was particularly delighted
to discover a fun little paper on safecracking (an analysis of the
keyspaces of safe locks), which was very similar to part of a survey I
published a few years ago.   I discuss what's likely in some of the
redacted material from that paper in a recent blog post at


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