Encryption is still the best defense, despite NSA code-cracking

Though the National Security Agency spends billions of dollars to crack encryption codes, security experts maintain that, properly implemented, encryption is still the best way to secure data.

Citing documents leaked by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, U.K. newspaper The Guardian and other media outlets have reported that the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, have cracked encryption algorithms that are widely used to protect online communications, banking and medical records, and corporate data.

But Steve Weis, CTO at security vendor PrivateCore, said despite the NSA activities, the mathematics of cryptography remain very hard to crack.

Weis, who holds a doctorate in cryptography from MIT, suggested that it's likely that the NSA managed to break through insecure and outdated implementations of some encryption technologies.

For example, the leaked documents suggest that the NSA built a back door into an encryption standard called Dual EC DRBG, which is used to generate random numbers. Weis noted that the Dual EC DRBG standard has been available for six years but has been rarely used since two Microsoft engineers discovered the NSA hack.

It remains unclear whether NSA experts have the ability to crack more robust encryption technologies, Weis said. "So far, I've not seen anything to suggest than an algorithm like [the Advanced Encryption Standard] has been broken."

Weis advised concerned enterprises to use open-source technologies like OpenSSL -- whose code is always visible to developers -- rather than commercial software. "The code is there for people to audit and you can see the changes," he said. "At least you have some assurance that there is no intentional vulnerability" built into the software.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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