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The NSA’s Cryptographic Capabilities – Schneier


Right now the upper practical limit on brute force is somewhere under 80 bits. However, using that as a guide gives us some indication as to how good an attack has to be to break any of the modern algorithms. These days, encryption algorithms have, at a minimum, 128-bit keys. That means any NSA cryptanalytic breakthrough has to reduce the effective key length by at least 48 bits in order to be practical.

Breakthroughs in factoring have occurred regularly over the past several decades, allowing us to break ever-larger public keys. Much of the public-key cryptography we use today involves elliptic curves, something that is even more ripe for mathematical breakthroughs. It is not unreasonable to assume that the NSA has some techniques in this area that we in the academic world do not. Certainly the fact that the NSA is pushing elliptic-curve cryptography is some indication that it can break them more easily.

If we think that’s the case, the fix is easy: increase the key lengths.

Assuming the hypothetical NSA breakthroughs don’t totally break public-cryptography — and that’s a very reasonable assumption — it’s pretty easy to stay a few steps ahead of the NSA by using ever-longer keys. We’re already trying to phase out 1024-bit RSA keys in favor of 2048-bit keys. Perhaps we need to jump even further ahead and consider 3072-bit keys. And maybe we should be even more paranoid about elliptic curves and use key lengths above 500 bits.

One last blue-sky possibility: a quantum computer. Quantum computers are still toys in the academic world, but have the theoretical ability to quickly break common public-key algorithms — regardless of key length — and to effectively halve the key length of any symmetric algorithm. I think it extraordinarily unlikely that the NSA has built a quantum computer capable of performing the magnitude of calculation necessary to do this, but it’s possible. The defense is easy, if annoying: stick with symmetric cryptography based on shared secrets, and use 256-bit keys.

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