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Users warned of "dubious" crypto apps

By Chris Williams. Published: 4th Jan 2004, 23:14:45 | Permalink | Printable

Don't believe everything you read

RISC OS Security motifPGP advocate and developer of security and privacy related software, Dr. Nat Queen, has this month published an informative article on modern cryptography. The article is a gentle introduction to anyone interested in exploring and using today's cryptographic techniques and covers public-key based encryption systems and the strength of modern ciphers. It also includes a section on 'snake oil', a term used in security circles that refers to "dubious encryption products" that cannot be trusted to ensure complete security and privacy.

Nat has also expressed his concern for "dubious encryption software [that] has been peddled recently, which may give some RISC OS users a false sense of security". He is, for instance, highly critical of the BCF cyrptosystem, which was developed by George Foot and Michael Brown and is distributed with new Castle Iyonix computers. George Foot was unavailable for comment at this time.

"The BCF Cryptosystem shows most of the warning signs for snake oil described in my article", Nat warned drobe.co.uk. "I'm sure that it would be fine for casual security, but George Foot keeps promoting it for high security, e.g. for businesses to protect their valuable secrets."

According to Nat, the warning signs for 'snake oil' are:
  • Is the source code to the cryptography software closed? If the code is open and available to all, then the system can be openly reviewed and analysed by experts. The BCF system's source code is closed despite numerous requests for the source to be made open.

  • Can the designer of the cryptography software be trusted and have they had their work published and peer-reviewed by experts? Nat explains in his article, "The design of a good cryptosystem cannot be entrusted to amateurs. There are many pitfalls, and even the professionals have made some serious blunders. All cryptosystems that are generally accepted in the world of cryptography have been created by experts whose work has been published in peer-reviewed journals of international standing."
    The BCF system has yet to be publically documented in such a way and even if it relies on an existing cryptosystem, Nat reminds us that, "It is well known that even the smallest modification of a good cryptosystem can render it insecure."

  • Does the cryptography software boast crazy key lengths but provides no mathematical evidence as to why this is needed? As Nat explained to drobe.co.uk, "The documents for BCF make a special point of emphasising that it allows a huge number of keys, presumably to try to impress the reader, but this by itself is no guarantee of security."

  • Does the software claim to use a 'one-time pad', which is a sequence of random numbers as long as the message itself? "BCF has some similarities to a one-time pad, which is indeed secure, but impractical for everyday use", Nat explained to drobe.co.uk. "In fact, it's based on a little-known theoretical system involving a huge "pad" of random numbers, which is believed to be secure *provided* that certain conditions are satisfied. But those conditions are virtually impossible to achieve in practice, and BCF certainly violates them."

For anyone interested in using PGP (yes, it really does stand for 'pretty good privacy') based encryption and security, Nat's introduction to PGP guide is particularly painless but be prepared for some bed time reading. PGP is the trusted standard cryptography software used worldwide on many, many computer platforms.

For the less paranoid who are wondering what's the point in all this crypotgraphy, PGP can be used to encrypt emails and files from invasive, prying eyes - hackers, the government, bored sysadmins, you name it. It can also be used to digitally sign files and emails so it can be proved that the data originated from you and hasn't been tampered with.


PGP and related apps for RISC OS

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I think you have to assume that absolutely everything you do on any computer, anywhere, is ultimately accessable to everyone. Including unlikely events like making a mobile phone call or purchasing an item with a debit/credit card. Ultimately, every step outside your home will be on camera, the skin cells that fall as you walk leaving a trail of your DNA behind as if you were a ship leaving a wake across an ocean. And your every thought, yes - one day too they will be logged and may be used in evidence against you. Paranoid ? Who ? Me ?

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 5/1/04 4:05PM
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Yes, you. I know you're paranoid because I can read your thoughts here at EchelonII control in california.

The really crucial problem with security is making it easy enough to use that people actually use it. Until that is done, it's almost pointless to worry about PGP, GPG, BCF, ROT14 or whatever.

 is a RISC OS Userrowledge on 5/1/04 4:21PM
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rowledge: GnuPG and PGP are perfectly usable from within Pluto and Messenger Pro.

 is a RISC OS Usersbellon on 5/1/04 4:33PM
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sbellon: 'easy enough to use that people actually use it' is not how I'd describe GnuPG/PGP from within Messenger Pro, because I don't use it, though I might want to. I don't know how. It's not glaringly obvious. There isn't a 'make this secure' button, as far as I know.

 is a RISC OS Usersenduran on 5/1/04 7:58PM
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>senduran: I don't think that 'glaringly obvious' is the same as 'usable'. So long as it's fairly easy to _find out_ how to do it if you really want to, it's usable. I personally wouldn't worry about just casually using it for everyday things (unless I habitually sent my credit-card nos by email, probably not very wise anyway, even _if_ I had a credit card...)

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 5/1/04 8:48PM
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_Really_ liking the graphic for this article, by the way. Looks very cool.

Sorry, that was somewhat OT.

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 5/1/04 8:49PM
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IIRC Lotus notes has a "make this secure" button for email. Mind you, as far as I know, mozilla (new versions) have a "This is spam" button which would also be nice for on RO.

 is a RISC OS Userjohn on 5/1/04 8:56PM
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senduran: I don't use Messenger but Pluto. And it's not difficult to set up.

I just had a look at the StrongHelp manuals for Messenger. There are two sections of how to use PGP. For GnuPG it's the same, except that you have to tick an option "prefer GnuPG over PGP" or some similar wording.

john: If you use Messenger and Bogofilter (or SpamStamp) you can have it as easy as that. For Pluto it's one mouse click more.

 is a RISC OS Usersbellon on 5/1/04 10:24PM
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I use spamstamp but aside from the slowness you have to drag the things to it and then wait for it to think. Using messenger to classify a whole bunch of things as spam was very hard. Now that it's trained it's a lot better but one click would have been that bit nicer (especially when one wrong classification made lots of other wrong classifications in mail already fetched by as yet unread)

It's great software, written as well as could be, but you can't beat an easy button :)

 is a RISC OS Userjohn on 5/1/04 11:26PM
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My comments weren't narrowly aimed at using pgp or gpg on any RISC OS app but widely aimed at the general problem - if it's not utterly trivial most people won't use it. If you had a single button to press during the initial setup of a computer to make use of security I bet you'd still find 70% of people didn't bother to press it.

But on the subject of pgp with messpro, last time I tried it there was only support for a version so old it was effectively dead. So I upgraded to a version that supports gpg and that sort of works but can be a right pain in my opinion. I haven't needed to use it in a while, fortunately. The UI was lousy.

 is a RISC OS Userrowledge on 6/1/04 1:31AM
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rowledge: "Press this button and be secure" cannot work be design! Security and comfort are opposites. You can make it easier for people to use the security tools available, but the people still have to understand what they're doing. There's no way other than that.

If you have problems with GnuPG and Messenger Pro integration, why not a) ask on the Messenger Pro list if it's more a Messenger Pro problem or b) ask me via private email if it's a GnuPG problem? I have never hesitated to help people.

 is a RISC OS Usersbellon on 6/1/04 11:09AM
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With what licence is BCF supplied with Iyonices? Is it freely distributable?


 is a RISC OS Usercaliston2 on 6/1/04 4:46PM
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caliston2: The user manual says "The copyright owners licence the use of the BCF Cryptosystem free of charge for non-commercial applications. For commercial applications consult the copyright owners at the address above." There's no more than this statement.

 is a RISC OS Usersbellon on 6/1/04 5:50PM
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Stefan, please, calm down - you really don't need to feel personally slighted.

You're quite right that 'press this button and be secure' wouldn't work but that's not my point, which was that IF that were done then a large proportion of people STILL wouldn't make even that much effort.

As for messpro/gpg - well the need for it passed and I didn't have time to do anything like contacting you. C'est la vie. If I get to a point of needing to make it all work nicely again I will surely ask you for advice!

 is a RISC OS Userrowledge on 6/1/04 9:24PM
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"You can make it easier for people to use the security tools available, but the people still have to understand what they're doing. There's no way other than that."

Most people don't even understand the importance of security let allone that they understand private-public key encription. Still they accidentely use it when accessing and downloading from secured sites.

I have to say that I myself don't understand the importance of things as sending encripted emails. It's difficult enough to find important and sensitive information in emails send to me and I can't imagine someone else wanting to steal and read them, if they do well good luck to them.

 is a RISC OS UserJaco on 7/1/04 7:26PM
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