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Random Clouds, or Rather, Random Numbers in the Clouds

Generation of cryptographic quality random numbers is a difficult science

In the last week or two, the security community has been abuzz with two different papers on the security of RSA keys. It turns out there are tens of thousands of RSA keys out there that are weak: they share a prime modulus with another public key, allowing both keys to be factored (i.e. broken) in a matter of minutes. The dust seems to have settled by now, and the root cause appears to be poor generation of these keys, in other words, low quality random number generators. How does this issue relate to cloud security, Porticor’s forte? Read on…

Random Clouds, or rather, Random Numbers in the Clouds

A True Random Number Generator (xkcd.com)

Generation of cryptographic quality random numbers is a difficult science, well beyond the scope of this blog. Unfortunately, the old saying applies: you get what you pay for. In the case of crypto randomness, the more initial randomness (a.k.a. entropy) you stir into the pot, the better the quality of the random numbers you will get out of it. And the stronger your cryptographic system will become.

The current research is the latest in a long history of cryptanalysis by exploiting faulty random number generators (RNGs). Starting with the early days of SSL, there have been many such attacks on crypto-systems. Perhaps the best known, but certainly the most embarrassing, is the Debian/openssl bug, where for almost two years, any RSA keys on Debian and Ubuntu systems were taken from the space of 215 keys, and were thus trivial to guess. Lucky for us, this was fixed in mid-2008.

Back to the new research: it turns out most of the weak keys are related to that essential ingredient of the stew, initial entropy. Before it can spit out good encryption keys, the RNG needs to be affected by real-life events, such as key-presses, network packets, disk rotations. Now, many systems start out by creating RSA keys (often in the form of certificates) very early on, as early as a few seconds after the system has been turned on. In the case of a PC, there’s already a useful amount of entropy available before any new software is installed. So where do we expect the lack of entropy to be a problem?

Random Clouds, or rather, Random Numbers in the Clouds

Magnetic Random Number Generator for Your Fridge

  • In embedded appliances, which boot up from a “burned” factory image and immediately create some keys.
  • In virtual systems (cloud instances), which boot up from stock software images and immediately go off to create some crypto keys.

All is not lost. When designing a complex virtual system, you can apply some industry best practices to obtain a solid randomness pipeline. This is essential if cryptography is a central part of your application’s security. And with the prevalent use of SSL, this is true for most modern systems.

  • Use the Linux /dev/random and /dev/urandom generator. This generator underwent serious scrutiny. Even though some minor weaknesses were found, it is generally believed to be sufficiently strong for crpytographic uses.
  • Whenever an appliance is booted, and that includes its first-time boot, it should receive an injection of randomness from a central randomness source, which may be your management subsystem. This allows the appliance to generate strong keys as soon as it starts out.
  • The management subsystem itself needs to receive a significant amount of real entropy from user and network interaction.
  • When generating a Master Key for a customer project, combine the strong randomness that you made available on the virtual appliance together with the weak randomness in the user’s browser (unfortunately JavaScript RNGs are still very low quality, but we are hoping to see some improvement). Although this is uncommon in cryptographic engineering, in this case you get the best of the two sources.

It may not be a surprise that all these best practices are implemented in Porticor’s VPD appliance and our Virtual Key Management service. We put significant effort into ensuring that our cryptographic subsystems are fed with crypto-grade randomness. This is yet another aspect of our relentless cloud security drive.

To summarize, the RSA algorithm is as strong as ever, and you definitely need a crypto-grade random number generator to use it securely. This is far from trivial in the cloud, and is yet another reason to get cloud security from the experts.

More Stories By Gilad Parann-Nissany

Gilad Parann-Nissany, Founder and CEO at Porticor is a pioneer of Cloud Computing. He has built SaaS Clouds for medium and small enterprises at SAP (CTO Small Business); contributing to several SAP products and reaching more than 8 million users. Recently he has created a consumer Cloud at G.ho.st - a cloud operating system that delighted hundreds of thousands of users while providing browser-based and mobile access to data, people and a variety of cloud-based applications. He is now CEO of Porticor, a leader in Virtual Privacy and Cloud Security.

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