Archive for October, 2014

The methods of securing data are robust. Your financial transactions, health records and other sensitive information are safeguarded by strong mathematical processes. You can use these same tools yourself to keep your emails private. It is not much harder than learning a new phone and installing an app.

Usually, when your personal data is exposed by organized gangs of Russian “businessmen” or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, it because of failures in computer security allowed by weaknesses in the programs. The cell phone companies deliver records to the NSA. The NSA does not break your ciphers. As far as we know, no one has ever cracked one of the public key methods developed since 1975. Some theoretical weaknesses have been suggested. Brute force attacks by the NSA have been hinted at, but never demonstrated. The mathematics is as immutable as the Law of Identity: A is A.  It is absolutely true that 1 + 1 = 2, always and forever.

A Crazy Idea

In the early to mid-1970s, independent researchers Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman at Stanford, Ralph Merkle at Berkeley, and Ronald Rivest at MIT, along with his doctoral candidates Adi Shamir and Lenard Adelman, all sought and found ways to encrypt information that were not based on any of the historically known methods. As a result, when Ralph Merkle submitted his papers to the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, they were rejected for denying the established wisdom of 2000 years. Working on his doctorate at Berkeley, he was told by his professors that he obviously did not know the basics of cryptography.

Codes and Ciphers

A code is a secret translation of one set of symbols for another. If we let
Handkerchief = Train
Scarf = Bus
Blouse = Plane
Red = 2:00PM
Blue = 3:00PM
Green = 3:45 PM
Then, “Thank you for the red scarf “ or “Thank you for the green blouse” could be sent via email or on a post card and the real meaning would be hidden. The weakness is in exchanging the key. Someone has to pass the translation table. However, given the security of the key table, the code is unbreakable.

A cipher is an orderly substitution. Taking the alphabet backwards, A=Z, B=Y, C=X,… turns BARACK OBAMA into YZIZCP LYZNZ. Another kind of cipher just takes the letters in turn say, every third in rotation so that HILLARY CLINTON becomes LRLTHLYIOIACNN.

Ciphers often can be broken with applied arithmetic. In English, e is the most common letter, followed by t a o i n s h r d l u… Among the complicated ciphers was the Vigenere in which a table of letter keys allowed shifting substitutions. During World War II, the Germans employed their “Engima” machine with its shifting and changeable wheels. It fell to the first of the computers, the “Bombe” of Bletchley Park and “Ultra” Project. In The Jefferson Key by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books, 2011), a supposedly unbreakable cipher finally falls to a modern-day sleuth. As constructed, it involved writing the letters vertically, then inserting random letters, then writing the letters horizontally. However, again, common arithmetic allows you to use the fact that any English word with a Q must have that letter followed by a U; and no English words have DK as a digraph. (Until DKNY, of course.) So, the cipher was broken.

Speaking to LASCON in Austin, October 23, 2014, Martin Hellman said that he and his co-workers were considered “insane” for suggesting that an encryption method could be devised in which the formulas were public. In fact, this idea had old roots.

The 19th century founder of mathematical economics, William Stanley Jevons, suggested that certain mathematical functions that were “asymmetric” could be the basis for a new kind of cryptography. Just because A=Z does not mean that Z=A. His idea did not bear fruit. However, Martin Hellman asked his colleagues in the mathematics department if they knew of any such asymmetric functions. Indeed, many exist.  They can be called “trapdoor functions” because they are easy to do in one direction, but computationally difficult in the other.  In other words, they are are unlike the four common arithmetic operations.

The Diffie-Hellman system employs modulo arithmetic.  RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) uses the totient function discovered by Leonhard Euler in 1763. In 1974, Ralph Merkle, then at Berkeley, thought of using a set of puzzles, where each one is moderately hard, but the full set of 15 becomes computationally difficult. Working together, Merkel and Hellman created a “knapsack” function in which the challenge is to put the “most important objects” (numbers) with the smallest weights (numbers) into a bag (solution set).

You can get the papers online. If you loved high school algebra, and get a kick out of crossword puzzles (especially acrostics) this will be fun. If not, just accept the fact that they work.

The salient facts remain: the cipher system is clearly described, yet stands cryptographically secure.   That is a mandate called “Kerckhoffs Law” named for Auguste Kerckhoffs, a 19th century Dutch linguist. A cryptographic system should remain secure, even if everything about it is known, except the key. Thus, in our time, you can find the mathematical theorems and computer code for public key systems. You can download almost instantly clickable applications to secure your email.

Pretty Good Privacy
A hundred years ago, codes and ciphers and the study of cryptography all were controlled by the secret services of governments. In our time, academic theoreticians publish papers. To be patented, a device must be published. And so, Phil Zimmermann took the mathematical theorems and processes of the RSA encryption algorithm and recoded them from scratch to create a new system, just as powerful, but available to anyone without need for a license. Zimmermann was threatened with lawsuits and such, but he prevailed. Today, PGP is a free product offered by software sales giant Symantec on their website here. It is something a “loss leader” for Symantec. You can get PGP from other places as well, see here.

With it, you can encrypt your emails. Know, however, that (1) you would need to be “approved” by another PGP user (easy enough) and that (2) anyone you send emails to with this also needs it to read your emails to them. Be that as it may, it is no harder than setting up a really cool Facebook page, just a bit of work and some close focus.

If you have a late model car, someone could disable the brakes, command the steering wheel, set the speed, open the doors, disable the airbags, or explode them, all from a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Perhaps the modern icon is the General Motors OnStar system. Everyone knows it; it shows up in movies and TV as commonly as orange juice or dogs. OnStar was launched in 1995 and went from analog to completely digital in 2006. (Wikipedia here.)  Now, such radio systems are a standard feature on common makes and models. The radios are called “transceivers” for “transmitter and receiver”, that is, a “walkie-talkie” or two-way radio, in other words, a cell phone that is always on. With that link someone can take control of your car.

Computers in cars go back to the 1978 Cadillac Seville. The chip was a Motorola 6800, used also in early personal computers. It ran the car’s onboard display that provided eleven outputs such as fuel economy, estimated time of arrival, and engine speed. By the turn of the Millennium, upscale BMWs and Mercedes boasted 100 processors. Even the low-tech Volvo now has 50. (Automotive Mileposts website here and Embedded website here. Note that “embedded” systems are computer controllers that built into other machines for control or diagnostics. Embedded systems is a branch of computing.)

However, the older your car, the safer you are. A vehicle from the 1980s or 1990s will have electronic controls, but they will be less open to attack from the outside.  Without a radio link such as OnStar, there is no way to control the car from the outside. Also, the older processors were more often dedicated to reporting things such as gas mileage or fuel economy. Electronic fuel ignition replaced carburetors, but, again, was a simple, stand-alone controller that could not be compromised from the outside.

Over the past few years, two different security projects have been reported in which “white hat hackers” (good guys) investigated ways to take control of different models of automobile.


The little antenna on the Prius is not just for the FM radio.

 In 2011, Car and Driver told about the work of the Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security, a collaboration between academics from the University of Washington and California State University at San Diego. First, they plugged their own device under the dashboard to compromise the on-board diagnostic computer. (Anyone who can get to your car could do that the next time you take in for an oil change or other routine service.) In the second phase, they figured out how to do that remotely.

According to Car and Driver: “Such breaches are possible because the dozens of  independently operating computers on modern vehicles are all connected through an in-car communications network known as a controller-area-network bus, or CAN bus.  Even though vital systems such as the throttle, brakes, and steering are on a separate part of the network that’s not directly connected to less secure infotainment and diagnostic systems, the two networks are so entwined that an entire car can be hacked if any single component is breached.”  (“Hack to the Future” Car and Driver July 2011 by Keith Barry here.)  The original research from the academics is posted online as PDFs.  (See below).

In the words of the researchers:  “We demonstrate that an attacker who is able to infiltrate virtually any Electronic Control Unit (ECU) can leverage this ability to completely circumvent a broad array of safety-critical systems. Over a range of experiments, both in the lab and in road tests, we demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input—including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on.”  (Published as “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile” by

Karl Koscher, Alexei Czeskis, Franziska Roesner, Shwetak Patel, Tadayoshi Kohno, Stephen Checkoway, Damon McCoy, Brian Kantor, Danny Anderson, Hovav Shacham, Stefan Savage.
 IEEE Symposium on Security andPrivacy, Oakland, CA, May 16–19, 2010. Available as a PDF from the authors here.)

Then, having figured out how to install their own controller into a car under the dashboard, they turned to the problem of remote control.

“Modern automobiles are pervasively computerized, and hence potentially vulnerable to attack. However, while previous research has shown that the internal networks within some modern cars are insecure, the associated threat model—requiring prior physical access—has justifiably been viewed as unrealistic. Thus, it remains an open question if automobiles can also be susceptible to remote compromise. Our work seeks to put this question to rest by systematically analyzing the external attack surface of a modern automobile. We discover that remote exploitation is feasible via a broad range of attack vectors (including mechanics tools, CD players, Bluetooth and cellular radio), and further, that wireless communications channels allow long distance vehicle control, location tracking, in-cabin audio exfiltration and theft. Finally, we discuss the structural characteristics of the automotive ecosystem that give rise to such problems and highlight the practical challenges in mitigating them.”  (Published as “Comprehensive Experimental Analyses of Automotive Attack Surfaces” by Stephen Checkoway, Damon McCoy, Brian Kantor, Danny Anderson, Hovav Shacham, and Stefan Savage (University of California, San Diego) and Karl Koscher, Alexei Czeskis, Franziska Roesner, and Tadayoshi Kohno (University of Washington). Available as a PDF from the authors here.)

Two years later, Andy Greenberg, who reports on technology for Forbes, filed a story about Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek who carried out their own car hacking research with a government grant.

“Miller, a 40-year-old security engineer at Twitter, and Valasek, the 31-year-old director of security intelligence at the Seattle consultancy IOActive, received an $80,000-plus grant last fall from the mad-scientist research arm of the Pentagon known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to root out security vulnerabilities in automobiles.” (Forbes, August 12, 2013 here. This story includes a video of the event. They took Greenberg for a ride that ended in a crash despite everything he could do to fight for control of the car. The 5 mph roll out finally stopped in some high grass. )