• *Updated:** 8/25/2010

Storefront-Backtalk magazine had an interesting post on Too Much Encrypt = Cyberthief Gift. And when I say ‘interesting’, I mean the topics are interesting, but the author (Walter Conway) seems to have gotten most of the facts wrong in an attempt to hype the story. The basic scenario the author describes is correct: when you encrypt a very small range of numbers/values, it is possible to pre-compute (encrypt) all of those values, then match them against the encrypted values you see in the wild. The data may be encrypted, but you know the contents because the encrypted values match. The point the author is making is that if you encrypt the expiration date of a credit card, an attacker can easily guess the value.

OK, but what’s the problem?

The guys over at Voltage hit the basic point on the head: it does not compromise the system. The important point is that you cannot derive the key from this form of attack. Sure, you can you confirm the contents of the enciphered text. This is not really an attack on the encryption algorithm, nor the key, but poorly deployed cryptography.

It’s one of the interesting aspects of encryption or hashing functions; if you make the smallest of changes to the input, you get a radically different output. If you add randomness (Updated: per Jay’s comments below, this was not clear; Initialization Vector or feedback modes for encryption) or even somewhat random “salting” (for hashing) we have an effective defense against rainbow tables, dictionary attacks, and pattern matching. In an ideal world we would do this. It’s possible some places don’t … in commodity hardware, for example. It did dawn on me that this sort of weakness lingers on in many Point of Sale terminals that sell on speed and price, not security.

These (relatively) cheap appliances don’t usually implement the best security: they use the fastest rather than the strongest cryptography, they keep key lengths short, they don’t do a great job at gathering randomness, and generally skimp on the mechanical aspects of cryptography. They also are designed for speed, low cost, and generic deployments: salting or concatenation of PAN with the expiration date is not always an option, or significant adjustments to the outbound data stream would raise costs.

But much of the article talks about data storage, or the back end, and not the POS system. The premise of “Encrypting all your data may actually make you more vulnerable to a data breach” is BS. It’s not an issue of encrypting too much, it’s in those rare cases where you encrypt in very small digestible fields. “Encrypting all cardholder data that not only causes additional work but may actually make you more vulnerable to a data breach” is total nonsense. If you encrypt all of the data, especially if you concatenate the data, the resulting ciphertext does not suffer from the described attack. Further, I don’t believe that “Most retailers and processors encrypt their entire cardholder database”, making them vulnerable. If they encrypt the entire database, they use transparent encryption, so the data blocks are encrypted as whole elements. The block contents are random so each has some degree of natural randomness going on because the database structure and pointers are present. And if they are using application layer or field level encryption, they usually salt alter the initialization vector. Or concatenate the entire record. And that’s not subject to a simple dictionary attack, and in no way produces a “Cyberthief Gift”.