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Security Strategies

Keeping Secrets Is Hard in the Year 2030

We're rocketing toward our conclusion of Light Reading's original science fiction serial, "Silence Like Diamonds." Read the latest installment here:

Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 8: Automatic Kidnapping.

Need to catch up? Start here: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business.

Or find every episode at the Faster-Than-Light Reading content page.

Once you're caught up, come back here and we'll return to the subject of encryption in the universe of "Silence Like Diamonds."

One of the most fascinating bits of business in "Silence Like Diamonds" is the way author John Barnes imagines the current state of encryption turned upside down.

I keep chewing over this point because it's so strange compared to the world we live in today, where we assume that any cheap computer encrypts information so strongly that the most powerful computers in the world can't break that encryption. (See What if Encryption Just Stopped Working?)

Barnes's imaginary world 15 years in the future turns that assumption upside down. In the world of "Silence Like Diamonds," encryption is like any other computational function: Anything one computer can do, another can undo. Businesses and individuals must assume nothing they encrypt is safe.

How different from today's world would that be? Surprisingly, maybe not a lot in most ways.

Right now, attackers can't break strong encryption, but they can get around it -- and do, frequently. They install spyware, they exploit security flaws in software, they use social engineering to trick information and passwords out of trusting users. Information channels are already quite leaky, even where encryption holds up.

And encryption doesn't always hold up. The Edward Snowden leaks showed that the US National Security Agency could decrypt some of the most common encryption algorithms in use -- including SSL, which secures transactions in all the common web browsers, as reported by Spiegel Online in December.

But still, there are some encryption formats that the NSA couldn't break, including those used in Zoho email, the Tor anonymization service, CSpace instant messaging and the ZRTP VoIP service, Spiegel says.

Strong, unbreakable encryption -- the kind we (often erroneously) take for granted -- is a relatively recent invention. The algorithms only date back 40 years. That's longer than the entire life of the Internet, of course, which is why we act like it's a law of nature. Previously, codebreakers were able to break encryption in hours or days, so much so that often people communicating with each other didn't bother encrypting even the most important state and business secrets, as Barnes writes on his personal blog.

The future of "Silence Like Diamonds" looks a lot like a high-tech version of the past, with codemakers, codebreakers, hackers and security professionals playing leapfrog -- and making a lot of money doing it. That's the work carried out by our heroine Yip and her family.

You can even encrypt information securely in the world of "Silence Like Diamonds." Even when encryption is easily broken almost all the time, one form of encryption codebreakers can't break uses "one-time pads" -- an encryption key the recipient and sender of the message know but attackers don't, and which is used once and then destroyed. That's what Yip tries to do when she sends up a balloon from her parents' home; she's trying to send a one-time pad over tight laser connections.

Also, large drones called Griffons circle above cities, providing wireless Internet access, while "pocket drones" called Roverinos provide individual access. Presumably those Roverino drones also provide one-time pads to users who need to communicate securely.

And that suggests roles for the communications service providers in Barnes's imaginary year 2013. In the future of "Silence Like Diamonds," service providers deliver broadband by drone, and provide security services, including managing those one-time pads.

The one thing I can't see being done -- and this is a very important thing -- is real-time, secure, anytime communications. How does an Amazon let people spontaneously log in and buy merchandise when it requires setting up a one-time pad with drones or balloons for every transaction?

Here in the real world of 2015, forward-thinking service providers, embracing the ethos of the New IP, are allowing enterprise customers to configure bandwidth, VPNs and spin up firewalls and other services on demand. How can service providers -- and other B2B companies that deal in expensive services and merchandise -- retain that kind of agility in the world of "Silence Like Diamonds," when secure communications is difficult and requires planning?

That's all for today. Things are getting exciting for Yip and Markus as we approach the last two episodes of "Silence Like Diamonds." Have a good week and we'll see you Friday for the last episode before the finale!

Related posts:

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

DHagar 8/20/2015 | 12:38:46 PM
Re: Keeping Secrets in 2030 John, fascinating - sounds like application of game theory.

This provides an example of why "critical thinking" is important, otherwise we are lulled into mental ruts.  A great case for effective Sci-Fiction Thrillers!
John Barnes 8/20/2015 | 12:16:27 AM
Re: Keeping Secrets in 2030 DHagar, math is math; if there's a not yet found way to do it, then there's always the potential that someone will find that and publicize it. We can choose what to look for and what to try to learn, but we can't choose what others will discover and we can't, as a species, unlearn something once we know the possibility. (This is what the atomic bomb scientists desperately tried to explain to Congress about the "secret" of the atomic bomb: the only secret there had ever been was that it was possible.  After that everything else was just engineering)>
Mitch Wagner 8/19/2015 | 9:58:48 PM
Re: Keeping Secrets in 2030 John Barnes - "If you really want to see money scramble around, though (story idea for you amateur fiction people), imagine a proof that 1) one way functions are indeed possible, and 2) prime factorization is not a one way function (which is to say, someone demonstrates a method for doing it).  You'd then have to convert all the cryptography in the world, ASAP, to a new one-way algorithm.  Whole world stops while a very small number of capable people do the math; that's a picture!"

We don't have to write that story -- we lived it. It's the Y2K problem all over again. 
DHagar 8/19/2015 | 7:06:30 PM
Re: Keeping Secrets in 2030 John, incredible!  So is it irreversible once it gets started?  Or is there any way to disrupt and prevent it from occuring ahead of time?  Sounds like a potentially dangerous chain of events.
John Barnes 8/19/2015 | 6:52:31 PM
Re: Keeping Secrets in 2030 Hey, Mitch, not sure how I missed your most brilliant paragraph when I first read this, but now it sticks out: the real problem is secure spontaneous communication with someone you don't have a prior connection with.  The thing that makes contemporary encryption work is that de facto, we have one-way functions (like prime factoring) that go very easily in one direction and are computationally overwhelming in the other).  But that's de facto, not de mathematica; in fact, mathematicians have been looking for any proof that there is such a thing as a one-way function for well over 100 years. (It has many applications beyond cryptography).  And it's that one way function aspect that makes spontaneous first-time secure communication possible.

But turning it around, if one way functions prove impossible, it just turns the problem of distance communication back into the trust problem we always lived with. You can't authenticate that those magic beans will grow into a magic beanstalk before you trade your cow away.  Not the end of the world; merely the end of the world as we know it.


If you really want to see money scramble around, though (story idea for you amateur fiction people), imagine a proof that 1) one way functions are indeed possible, and 2) prime factorization is not a one way function (which is to say, someone demonstrates a method for doing it).  You'd then have to convert all the cryptography in the world, ASAP, to a new one-way algorithm.  Whole world stops while a very small number of capable people do the math; that's a picture!
DHagar 8/18/2015 | 6:20:34 PM
Re: Keeping Secrets in 2030 Mitch, thanks for great insights and mind-twisting thoughts!

In John's scenario, one wonders what are the chances of losing total control if the encryption codes are compounded and artificial intelligence?  Maybe that will be answered in the final two episodes.

 
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