RSA: How to steal encryption keys off hardware chips and smart cards

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According to Cryptography Research technical director of hardware security solutions Pankaj Rohatgi, researchers will demonstrate "leaky crypto" associated the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) approved under the National Security Agency (NSA) Suite B program. NSA Suite B has been approved for use in top-secret communications in defense applications, he noted.

"It doesn't matter what manufacturer it is, any circuitry leaks information if you observe emissions out of the circuitry," says Rohatgi on the topic of "leaky crypto."

In what he calls a proof-of-concept demonstration, in a matter of a few minutes or less, the Cryptography Research team will show how to grab the symmetric key using electromagnetic-probe techniques that will involve a direct connection to the FPGA.

Once the key is seized, the system is compromised. "What we're saying is, if you want to be resistant to these attacks, you need to know how to protect against them," Rohatgi says.

In a separate RSA session, the security firm will discuss protections based on research done to find countermeasures. This "side-channel testing" was done jointly with another firm, Riscure. Some of this material has been shared already with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Test suites are being made public so that people can use them and the public is invited to contribute to improve them.

In one crypto-leaking demo that's planned, the target will be smart cards doing elliptic-curve cryptography. Smart cards are often used today for identification, and if you can extract the key, you can potentially commit fraud, Rohatgi pointed out.

Companies themselves can test for the kinds of side-channel attacks Cryptography Research will be identifying in leaky crypto, and much of the main defense really boils down to one thing: better math. "It boils down to doing the math differently," says Rohatgi, saying there are subtle tricks such as introducing noise into the side channel so that even if the information leaks, it doesn't have value to an attacker.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail:

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