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[liberationtech] Cryptography super-group creates unbreakable encryption

Nadim Kobeissi nadim at
Tue Mar 5 15:44:03 PST 2013

That was the best email I have ever read on this mailing list.
Congratulations and thank you. Please post this as a blog post somewhere.


On Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 6:23 PM, Rich Kulawiec <rsk at> wrote:

> On Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 01:35:53PM -0800, Adam Fisk wrote:
> > At the risk of getting swept up in this by consciously saying something
> > unpopular, I want to put my shoulder against the wheel of the "open
> source
> > process produces more secure software" machine. [snip]
> I've been thinking about your (excellent) comments for several weeks now.
> And I'm going to argue that open source doesn't necessarily produce more
> secure software, but it's a prerequisite for any credible attempt.  And
> that in this particular case, there's just no substitute for it.
> But before I get started, let me pointed out that I'm very much *not*
> arguing that the contrapositive is true, that "open source == chewy
> goodness" automatically.  We've all seen open source code that was junk.
> Lots of it.  We've all probably written some, too; I know I have.
> So here goes:
> Consider this hypothetical: you have the imaginary disease Bieberitis,
> which progressively imposes the characteristics of Justin Bieber on you,
> then kills you.  So not only do you die, you die badly.  Clearly: it's
> an awful fate.
> There are only two drugs available to treat this disease.
> Drug A has a history that looks something like this: the basic
> biochemistry has been known for 18 years.  It's been studied at multiple
> universities and research institutions.  There are numerous published
> papers on it.  Early animal trials were conducted 15 years ago, and those
> results were published as well, leading to another round of animal trials
> with a slightly different formulation and more publication.  Following
> review by independent agencies 12 years ago, limited human trials were
> held, with still more publication.  A lengthy review and debate ensued,
> the drug was discussed and debated at numerous conferences and meetings,
> other (new) researchers weighed in with their papers, and a second
> round of human trials took place 9 years ago.  Following that, review
> by multiple government agencies commenced.  Additional work continued
> in parallel on refinement of dosage and delivery.  Eventually, following
> another blizzard of paperwork and publication, the drug was approved --
> and is now available to you.  Studies are still ongoing, of course,
> and it's expected that half a dozen more papers will be published in
> referreed journals this year.
> So: drug A has a long history.  Lots of clueful eyeballs have investigated
> it personally, and many more clueful eyeballs have read the published body
> of work, thought about it, argued about it, reviewed it, critiqued it,
> supported it, rebutted it, and otherwise been involved in the process.
> Moreover: nearly all those clueful eyeballs are INDEPENDENT clueful
> eyeballs, who have, in many cases, substantial motivation to disprove
> claims made -- since one of the best ways to make one's academic
> reputation is to perform ingenious, ground-breaking work which
> demonstrates that something everyone agrees on is completely wrong.
> Now, about drug B: drug B has no publications associated with it.
> It's never been independently reviewed.  It has none of the lengthy
> history of A.  What's it got?  It's got a shiny color brochure written by
> the marketing department that tells you how great it is, because it was
> developed by some of the top people ever.  Really.  Top people.  As in:
>         Major Eaton: We have top men working on it now.
>         Indiana Jones: Who?
>         Major Eaton:
> That's it.  That's all you get.  Promises.  Assurances.  Hand-waving.
> Now: which drug are you going to take?
> Of course the obvious answer is A, since B is more commonly known as
> "snake oil".  It's garbage.  No thinking, responsible person would
> ever choose B, because -- absent the history and the research and
> the publication and everything else -- it might be the instant cure
> for Bieberitis, or it might be sugar pills, or it might be poison.
> There's no way to know.
> All serious fields of intellectual endeavor use the same model as I
> outlined in the development of drug A, which I'll lump under the rubric
> "peer review".  Architecture and law, physics and economics, medicine and
> civil engineering, everybody uses this.  And they use it because, despite
> its flaws, it works really, really well.  It's an essential component of
> the scientific method.  It's how we make forward progress, however slowly.
> Fields of study that don't use this are crap.  Astrology, creationism,
> alchemy, homeopathy, phrenology, and yes, closed-source software: all crap.
> There is no way we should accept what any closed-source vendor claims
> about their code.  There is no reason to, no matter who they are, no
> matter how much we trust them, no matter how pure their motives are.
> Heck, we often can't even trust OUR OWN CODE to do what we think we want
> it to do, even when we're staring right at it -- so why in the world
> should we make the fantastic leap of faith to trust someone else's when
> we can't even see it?
> Closed-source software is the equivalent of drug B.  We're expected
> to take the authors' word that it (a) does everything they say it does
> and (b) does nothing else.  We're expected to do this despite decades
> of history proving, many times per day, that this is not only wrong,
> but completely, wildly, amazingly wrong.  (For a small drink out of
> the firehose of evidence substantiating that statement, read bugtraq,
> or full-disclosure, or the -developers list for any substantial project,
> or the bug queue for something hosted on SourceForge, or check the patch
> lists for any piece of software, or look at your own code.)
> We, for a value of "we" meaning "all programmers on this planet",
> pretty much suck at writing software.  Even the best of us, and I'm
> sure not one of them, struggle to write programs of any size/complexity
> that meet their functional specifications and don't have major security
> or privacy issues.  The only slim chance we have of maybe, MAYBE, on
> a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction, of actually
> getting somewhere vaguely close to what we're aiming at, is peer review.
> It's not a great chance: but it's the best we've got.
> Maybe in 50 years that'll change.  Maybe by then we'll able to write
> large-scale/complex programs with verifiable code that matches verifiable
> specifications.  But we're not there yet, so yeah, I'm gonna stick with:
> source or GTFO.
> But wait!  There's more!
> This isn't just any old piece of software: this isn't a word processor
> or a database: this is crypto that is intended to keep people *alive*.
> And while I won't even pretend to be a cryptographer, one thing I've
> learned is that developing solid cryptographic algorithms is hard.
> Really hard.  People with significant expertise in the field spend
> mountains of time working on them...only to find that 8 months after
> publication, somebody on the other side of the world has already managed
> to mount a credible attack.  Then there's a tiny crack...and soon someone
> else widens the crack...and then, in a flurry of published papers and
> conference presentations, the whole thing gets demolished.
> Or at least compromised to such an extent that everyone concurs it won't
> survive much longer, that what's on the table strongly indicates that
> better attacks will come along and finish the job.
> The only way, really, that we can have any confidence in any cryptographic
> algorithm is to see it published...and then wait.  We wait to see what
> happens when people get a look at it and start thinking about ways to
> tear it apart using either theoretical or practical attacks, or more
> likely, both.
> How long do we wait?  That depends.  There's no fixed schedule.
> But every year that an algorithm withstands scrutiny slightly increases
> our confidence that this is not an accident -- that it's not escaping
> attack because nobody's trying, but because it truly is robust in the
> face of clueful and determined experts.
> So in the case of cryptography software, it's not just source or GTFO:
> it's publish the algorithm or GTFO.
> ---rsk
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