The PBA attack on RSA

I understand that we’re now living in a world in which everyone feels like they deserve their 15 minutes of fame, but I found the way that unwitting journalists managed to get it for security researchers Andrea Pellegrini, Valeria Bertacco and Todd Austin of the University of Michigan get their 15 minutes to be a bit frustrating.

Pelligrini, Bertacco and Austin actually did some fairly clever work: they found a way to cause bit errors in a microprocessor by carefully altering its input voltage, and then used these errors to help recover an RSA private signing key. For each bit error they were able to recover about 8 bits of private key, and were able to recover an entire 1,024-bit RSA key in about 100 hours.

If you’re interested in side-channel analysis and implementations of cryptography, their paper is well worth reading. On the other hand, their attack really isn’t the sort of thing to worry about too much. Devices that are designed to be secure, like HSMs and smart cards, filter the power so that you can't do attacks like the PBA attack, and with devices that aren't designed to be secure, there's always an easier way to recover a key from them than doing something like the PBA attack. This means that we won't be seeing hackers using the PBA attack any time soon, but you'd never think this from seeing the way it was reported by the media.

One headline read “'Severe' OpenSSL vuln busts public key crypto." That really doesn't seem to be a good summary of the PBA attack. The rest of the article didn't really to do much better.

Another headline said “RSA 1024-bit private key encryption cracked,” which was also a bit misleading. RSA-1024 wasn’t actually cracked. Instead, a particular implementation of it was beaten, and beaten in a way that really doesn’t pose a threat to most people. There’s absolutely nothing fundamentally wrong with RSA, although you really can’t tell that from this particular story.

The big problem seems to be that for each person who read and understood the PBA paper, there are probably thousands out there now wasting lots of time and energy worrying about whether or not the RSA-1024 that they use for SSL is secure enough. It almost certainly is, but you really can’t tell that from the media coverage of the PBA attack. 

Maybe some reporters ought to attend the next cryptography boot camp that our marketing guys hold. They did this at the RSA Conference last week, and from what I heard, the people who attended found it to be a very good use of a couple of hours. Maybe I’ll suggest that they invite some reporters to it the next time they organize it. Encryption is a tricky subject, and it's hard to understand all of the details of how it works. But if we had a few journalists who understood the basics of cryptography, we might not have had to spend so much time explaining exactly why this "severe vulnerability" isn't really worth worrying about.

Fortunately, Voltage's products use DSA for signatures instead of RSA. That will save us lots of time trying to explain to customers that while the PBA attack is actually some very clever research, it can't really be done to our products. Just saying that we don't use RSA for signatures is much easier.

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