It is needless to start this article explaining about the rise of mobile devices in the last few years. We all know about how smart phones have swept the world. But with mobiles you always look for concepts or solutions which are computationally cheap. For example, Android OS uses a dex compiler to convert the Java Byte code to .dex files before compiling them. Why? Because dex files are optimized code for low memory and low processing systems. Similarly when it comes to encryption on mobile devices we look for solutions which are computationally cheap and yet secure. ECC (Elliptic Curve Cryptography) provides exactly the same. This article explains about the why and how ECC is different from the other encryptions.
What is the need for an alternative encryption scheme when you have RSA?
Mobile phones have 2 main limitations:
- Computational limitations – Because the processors used on mobile devices are less capable compared to the ones used on a desktop system. Although there are a few devices which use dual core/quad core, most of the mobiles in general are not equipped with these kinds of CPU’s. 2.
- Battery Life – Mobile devices run throughout the day and battery consumption is one of the important aspects for the success of a device. The more computations a device has to perform the more battery life is consumed.
Consider a normal user who visits a banking site on his mobile device to transfer money to his friend. A low processing powered mobile device would struggle with the 1024 bit computations of RSA. With major financial institutions, the smallest key size allowed for RSA is 1024 bits. This activity not only takes time to complete but also eats into the battery life of the device.
What is ECC?
Elliptical curve cryptography (ECC) is a public key encryption technique based on elliptic curve theory that can be used to create faster, smaller, and more efficient cryptographic keys. So let us analyze the ECC algorithm by considering 2 factors – Security & Efficiency.
When we talk about public key encryption algorithms, the first things that come to mind are RSA and Diffie-Hellman. Both these algorithms use 1024 bit keys for major transactions. But it’s important here to note that NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) has recommended 1024 bit parameters only till the year 2010. The RSA algorithm is into its 40th birthday and probably regarded as the standard public key exchange on the Internet. After 2010, NIST believes that the existing systems be upgraded to a different set up to provide more security (although we no longer believe NSA or NIST :)). One option is to simply increase the key size used with these algorithms. However you are not quite sure as to what is the safe key size. Other option is to switch to a different set up which is more secure. ECC here comes to rescue. ECC generates keys through the properties of the elliptic curve equation instead of the traditional method of generation as the product of very large prime numbers.
RSA’s security is based on the principle that factoring is slow and hard i.e. it is difficult to factor a large integer composed of two or more large prime factors. With the improvements in technology, the gap between factoring and multiplying is slowly reducing. In the coming years, certainly this is bound to break. Switching to a larger key size is one option but it would only give the breathing space for a few more years.
An elliptic curve is represented as a looping line intersecting two axes. ECC is based on properties of a particular type of equation created from the mathematical group derived from points where the line intersects the axes. Multiplying a point on the curve by a number will produce another point on the curve, but it is very difficult to find what number was used, even if you know the original point and the result. For elliptic-curve-based protocols, it is assumed that finding the discrete logarithm of a random elliptic curve element with respect to a publicly known base point is infeasible –this is called as the elliptic curve discrete logarithm problem or ECDLP. Equations based on elliptic curves have a characteristic that is very valuable for cryptography purposes: they are relatively easy to perform, and extremely difficult to reverse. Despite almost three decades of research, mathematicians still haven’t found an algorithm to solve this problem. To state in simple words, for numbers of the same size, solving elliptic curve discrete logarithms is significantly very much harder than factoring. ECC was developed by Certicom, a mobile e-business security provider. RSA has been developing its own version of ECC. Other manufacturers, including Motorola, Cylink, Siemens, and VeriFone etc have already included support for ECC in their products.
The curious case of Angela Merkel’s phone tapping
A few months back, the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was tapped by the US government has created quite a scene. Amid this controversy there was also news that Merkel used 2 phones – one BlackBerry (encrypted) and the other Nokia (not encrypted). In September, new government phones which were manufactured by the Canadian company BlackBerry were delivered to all government officials (including Merkel) after being updated by the German company Secusmart. They contain a special encryption card that scrambles speech and data before transmitting it. So this Secusmart card used the Elliptic curve cryptography to encrypt and decrypt the mobile speech. And just because it is encrypted doesn’t mean its safe. It all depends upon how difficult it is to crack the key.
In terms of efficiency, ECC wins the race by large margin. The below table explains it all. The following table gives the key sizes recommended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to protect keys used in conventional encryption algorithms like the (DES) and (AES) together with the key sizes for RSA, Diffie-Hellman and elliptic curves that are needed to provide equivalent security.
For instance to protect 128-bit AES keys using RSA or Diffie-Hellman you need to use 3072-bit parameters. The equivalent key size for elliptic curves is only 256 bits. Also, as the symmetric key size increases, the corresponding RSA/Diffie Hellman key size increases at a much higher rate compared to ECC key size. This is particularly a strong case for moving towards ECC on low powered environments like mobile devices, wireless devices, smart cards etc.
Real word ECC – is it safe?
The reports leaked by Edward Snowden suggested that Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generation (or Dual_EC_DRBG) had been included as a NIST national standard due to the influence of NSA, which had included a deliberate weakness in the algorithm and the recommended elliptic curve. RSA Security then issued an advisory recommending that its customers discontinue using any software based on Dual_EC_DRBG. Wikipedia mentions “Implementations which used Dual_EC_DRBG would usually have gotten it via a library. At least RSA Security (BSAFE library), OpenSSL, Microsoft, and Cisco has libraries which included Dual_EC_DRBG, but only BSAFE used it by default. According to the Reuters article which revealed the secret $10 million deal between RSA Security and NSA, RSA Security’s BSAFE was most important distributor of the backdoored algorithm. There was a flaw in OpenSSL’s implementation of Dual_EC_DRBG that made it non-working outside test mode, from which OpenSSL’s Steve Marquess concludes that nobody used OpenSSL’s Dual_EC_DRBG implementation”. All these point out the dark side of the NSA
However there are several different standards which propose ways of selecting curves for use in elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC). Each of these standards tries to make sure that the elliptic-curve discrete-logarithm problem (ECDLP – the problem of finding an ECC user’s secret key, given the user’s public key) is difficult. Below are some of the standards in use:
- ANSI X9.62
- IEEE P136
- SEC 2
- NIST FIPS 186-2
- ANSI X9.63
- NSA Suite B
- ANSSI FRP256V1
Hence selecting the right curve and parameters is also important to ensure real world ECC security. More information can be found at the link: http://safecurves.cr.yp.to/.
-> ECC employs a relatively short encryption key. It is faster and requires less computing power than other first-generation encryption public key algorithms such as RSA, Diffie-Hellman. For example, a 160-bit ECC encryption key provides the same security as a 1024-bit RSA encryption key and can be up to 15 times faster, depending on the platform on which it is implemented.
-> Extremely helpful for use on low memory and low computing environments such as mobile devices, wireless devices etc.
-> Elliptic curves are supported by all modern browsers, and most certification authorities offer elliptic curve certificates.
Elliptic curve cryptography has proven to be a promising solution for the implementation of public-key cryptosystems. As widespread use of the internet and mobile devices continues to increase, transferring data the information with less computation and in a more secure manner has been the primary focus. With smaller key sizes and lower processing requirements, elliptic curve cryptography serves the purpose on mobile devices.