The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 12 Issue 63

Weds 14 November 1991


o Copy of Letter to NIST in response to proposed DSS
Martin Hellman
o Antivirus software vendor creates viruses
Richard Kulawiec
W. K. Gorman
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Copy of Letter to NIST in response to proposed DSS

Martin Hellman <>
Wed, 13 Nov 91 12:24:11 PST
Martin E. Hellman
Professor of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-4055
(415) 723-4002 (tel)  723-8473 (fax)
November 12, 1991

Mr. James H. Burrows, Director
Computer Systems Laboratory
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Gaithersburg, MD 20899

Dear Mr. Burrows:

I am responding to your request for comments on the "Proposed Digital Signature
Standard," published in the Federal Register on August 30, 1991. My detailed
comments are attached on the following pages, but I can summarize by saying
that I am deeply concerned by faults in the technical specifications of the
proposed DSS and by its development process.

NIST has lost considerable credibility with the non-military cryptographic
research community and, unless the revision process of DSS is carried out in a
much more rapid and open fashion, NIST is likely to become totally ineffective
in the setting of cryptographic standards. That would be a grave loss to both
NIST and the nation, so I hope change is possible.

I look forward to seeing your response to these concerns.

Martin E. Hellman
Professor of Electrical Engineering

cc: Congressman Tom Campbell
    Senator Alan Cranston
    Senator John Danforth
    Congressman John Dingell
    Senator Patrick Leahy
    Congresswoman Constance Morella
    Senator John Seymour
    Congressman Tim Valentine

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

1. DSS DOES NOT INCLUDE KEY EXCHANGE. Public-key cryptography provides two
advantages over conventional cryptography:

Key Exchange: the ability for users to communicate privately without fear of
being overheard, and without using couriers, registered mail, or similar means
for prearrangement of a secret key.

Digital Signatures: the ability to sign messages which are easily checked by
anyone, yet which cannot be forged or modified, even by the intended recipient.

The DSS addresses only the second of these two needs. Until a key exchange
standard is developed, users who follow the standard will be at a severe
disadvantage in terms of the privacy of their communications. It would have
been a simple matter for NIST to include a key exchange standard with the DSS,
either by adopting the RSA system [1] for both operations or by specifying the
Diffie-Hellman key exchange system [2] as the key exchange standard to be used
with the current DSS. (The Diffie-Hellman system is the natural key exchange
choice if the proposed DSS is used for digital signatures. The DSS is derived
from the Diffie-Hellman system.) Because of its early publication (1976), the
Diffie-Hellman system possesses a high degree of confidence as to its security
level as discussed under #4 below.

2. THE KEY SIZE IS TOO SHORT. The proposed DSS is restricted to a 512 bit
modulus or key size. It is generally accepted in the cryptographic research
community that this is too short for a system such as DSS, which is based on
discrete logarithms and which requires a long life. To quote from a recent
paper by LaMacchia and Odlyzko [3] written prior to the announcement of DSS
"even 512-bit primes [key size] appear to offer only marginal security." This
is such a well established viewpoint that further explanation seems
unnecessary. While there should be lower limits on the key size to ensure a
reasonable level of security, there is no reason for an upper limit. If, in
spite of this argument, NIST keeps an upper limit, it should be increased to at
least 1024 bits.

The proposed DSS also limits the "subkey" size 160 bits, a value that is again
too short. [4] Using the ideas in my paper with Pohlig [5], it is possible to
recover a user's secret key x from his public key y in 2^80 operations by using
2^80 words of memory. (Any other breakdown can be used so long as the time
memory product is 2^160, for example 2^100 operations and 2^50 words of
memory.) While such a computation is currently infeasible, it is closer to
possibility than seems comfortable considering probable advances in technology
and improvements in algorithms. The particular cryptanalytic problem involved
in breaking the DSS has not been well studied (see #4 below), making such
improvements highly probable. As with the 512-bit modulus, the subkey length
should not have an upper bound. Or, if NIST insists on keeping an upper bound,
it needs to be at least double, and preferably, quadruple the current 160-bit

COMMON MODULUS SYSTEM. While common modulus systems have an advantage in speed
of key generation, they allow a successful attack on one user's secret key to
be extended to all users of the common modulus. Using a common modulus is
analogous to having all personnel within an organization use combination locks
with ten digit combinations, but with the first nine digits being common to all
users. This simplifies setting the combination of a lock, but allows an
opponent to amortize the cost of an attack on one lock over the large number of
locks that are then easily picked.

While DSS need not be used in common modulus mode and there are some
applications where that mode is desirable, clear warnings are needed about
reduced security in common modulus mode. The proposed DSS says that the modulus
"can be common to a group of users" without any mention of the attendant

Use of a common modulus would be of less concern if the key and subkey sizes of
DSS were increased as suggested in #2 above.

Cryptography is still more an art than a science.  For most systems, including
all digital signature system, proofs of security are currently impossible.
Rather, we rely on concerted attacks by "friendly opponents" intent on fame,
rather than thievery, if they are successful in breaking the system. We become
more confident of the security of a system as it is subjected to widespread
public scrutiny for long periods of time.

The DSS is based on Schnorr's variant [6] (published 1990) of the ElGamal
signature scheme [7] (published 1985). There has thus been little time to gain
confidence in Schnorr's variation. ElGamal's system, while older, is still only
half the age of its primary competition as a digital signature standard, the
RSA system1 (published 1978).

Unless Schnorr's scheme possesses some major advantage compared to RSA, it is
strange that Schnorr's scheme was selected as the standard. I am aware of no
such major advantage of Schnorr over RSA. The only advantage I see is that
Schnorr's signatures are somewhat shorter (320 bits versus 512 bits for a
comparable security RSA using today's best known algorithms). On the other
hand, in addition to possessing a higher confidence level as regards its
security, RSA has a major advantage over Schnorr: Using RSA would automatically
have provided for public key exchange,a critical part of the public-key
standard that NIST has not yet developed (see #1 above).

ALGORITHMS. Cryptanalyzing the DSS is a special case of computing a discrete
logarithm. The history of this problem, as well as the closely related problem
of factoring, shows a slow but steady improvement. It was only about fifteen
years ago that the subexponential nature of the problem was realized. Prior to
that time, estimates of the effort required to break DSS with a 128-bit key
would have been beyond the realm of reasonability, while today, even a 256-bit
key would be insecure.

Improvements over the last fifteen years in finding discrete logarithms have
effectively cut key sizes by a factor of four. Should that happen again over
the next fifteen years, the DSS would be totally insecure. For similar reasons,
I have always advocated at least a factor of two, and preferably a factor of
four, as a safety margin. The proposed DSS imprudently has little or no safety

The danger is increased because of recent advances. Until two years ago, all
subexponential algorithms for discrete logarithms and for factoring took time
of the form exp[k ln(n)^(1/2) (lnln(n))^(1/2)] with k=1 as the best value.
Recently, number field sieves have been proposed that solve both problems in
time exp[k ln^(1/3)(n)(lnln(n))^(2/3)] with k approximately equal to 2. While
the higher value of k makes the new algorithm no better for 512-bit keys (1E20
operations versus 7E19 operations for the earlier algorithms), it is probable
that the value of k will be reduced as attention becomes focussed on number
field sieves.

Over the last fifteen years, algorithms requiring exp[k SQRT(ln(n) lnln(n)]
operations have been improved from k=2 to k=1. It would be prudent to assume
similar advances in number field sieves, in which case breaking the DSS would
become trivial, requiring only 1.0E10 operations, a computation that can be
done on a personal computer.

Director of NIST, has stated that "the digital signature standard is expected
to be available on a royalty-free basis in the public interest world-wide." [8]
Yet at least two privately owned US patents cover the DSS (#4,200,770 and

I understand that Schnorr is claiming that his patent (#4,995,082) is also
needed to practice the DSS. If Schnorr's claim holds, then the DSS has a patent
disadvantage compared to either RSA or ElGamal/Diffie-Hellman since the United
States Government has the right to use the latter systems on a royalty-free
basis, but I doubt that it has rights to Schnorr's work. (Clarification from
NIST would be appreciated.)

statement, Mr. Kammer, also stated that

  ... the digital signature technique [DSS] provides for a less
  computational-intensive signing function than verification function. This
  matches up well with anticipated Federal uses of the standard. The signing
  function is expected to be performed in a relatively computationally modest
  environment such as with smart cards. The verification process, however, is
  expected to be implemented in a computationally rich environment such as on
  mainframe systems or super-minicomputers.

Under the environment specified by Mr. Kammer, the DSS would have an advantage
over RSA, the primary competing technique.  However, as a universal standard,
the DSS will often be used in complementary environments where signing is done
in a computationally-intensive environment and verification in a
computationally modest environment. A good example is the use of digital
signatures generated by a bank and checked by a customer on his or her home
computer. This environment would favor "small exponent" RSA systems which allow
verification to be performed with approximately one percent of the total
signing effort of DSS (including precomputation).

Rather than claim an advantage for DSS or RSA in a particular environment, I
believe that the best standard is the one which is usable in the greatest
number of environments envisioned for its use. That approach leads to the most
widely applicable standard. On that basis, ElGamal or Schnorr's signature
scheme is approximately equal to RSA.  Hence, none of the competing systems
should be deemed to have a speed advantage over the others.

listed last, this is the most important change since a more open adoption
process would have avoided most of the above shortcomings in DSS.

I am not aware of any attempts on NIST's part to involve researchers in
academia and industry. (If there were such attempts, I hope NIST will make
these a matter of public record.) Rather, NIST appears to have worked in secret
with only NSA providing advice. This is dangerous because much of NSA's legally
mandated mission involves foreign espionage which would be hampered by secure
public encryption. As with any organization or individual, NSA is likely to put
greater emphasis on its concerns than would a neutral third party.

There is an unavoidable tradeoff in that providing a high level of
communications security to American business and citizens also makes this
protection available to our foreign adversaries. NIST's actions give strong
indications of favoring protection of NSA's espionage mission at the expense of
American business and individual privacy. While an impartial working group
might conclude that such a policy was in the nation's best interests, relying
solely on NSA for advice is unlikely to produce an optimal tradeoff for the
nation as a whole.

1. R. L. Rivest, A. Shamir, and L. Adleman, "A Method for Obtaining Digital
Signatures and Public-Key Cryptosystems," Communications of the ACM, vol. 21,pp
120-126, 1978.

2. W. Diffie and M. E. Hellman, "New Directions in Cryptography," IEEE
Transactions on Information Theory, vol. IT-22, pp 472-492, 1976.

3. B. A. LaMacchia and A. M. Odlyzko, "Computation of Discrete Logarithms in
Prime Fields," Design, Codes, and Cryptography, vol. 1, pp 47-62, 1991.

4. I am indebted to Prof. Leonard Adleman of USC for pointing this out.

5. S. C. Pohlig and M. E. Hellman, An Improved Algorithm for Computing
Logarithms Over GF(p) and Its Cryptographic Significance, IEEE Transactions on
Information Theory, vol. IT-24, pp 106-110, 1978.

6.C. P. Schnorr, "Efficient identification and signatures for smart cards,"
Advances in Cryptology: Proceedings of Crypto '89, (Giles Brassard editor),
Lecture Notes in Computer Science 435, New York: Springer-Verlag, pp. 239-251.

7. Taher ElGamal, "A public-key cryptosystem and a signature scheme based on
discrete logarithms," IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, vol. IT-31, pp
469-472, 1985.

8. June 27, 1991 statement before the Subcommittee on Technology and
Competitiveness of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the House
of Representatives.

   [This letter duplicates some of the material in Ron Rivest's letter to NIST
   which was included in RISKS-12.57 and the correction in RISKS-12.58.
   However, there is some new knowledge here regarding subkey size, patent
   rights, etc.  It also serves as a reminder that the OFFICIAL DEADLINE for
   responses to NIST is basically before Thanksgiving (90 days from 30 August)
   for comments that will be officially recorded and acknowledged.  I was told
   that as of recently NIST had received ONLY TWO RESPONSES, and they were both
   POSITIVE.  You are encouraged to write NIST if you have an opinion on DSS.

Antivirus software vendor creates viruses

Richard Kulawiec <>
Wed, 13 Nov 91 09:54:22 EST
[Page 59 of the November 1991 "Sun Observer", in the "New Products" section]

Vfind locates viruses on Unix, Mac, DOS systems.
Sun-3, Sparcstations (Software)

Cybersoft has released its first Unix product, Vfind.

Vfind is a scanner that executes directly on the Unix system and helps detect
viruses on Unix computers which have problems with malicious computer programs
related to viruses.

Although many people do not believe that computer viruses are a direct problem
to Unix systems, CyberSoft has developed, under quarantine, a Unix virus in an
effort to help the company anticipate the types of viruses that may appear in
the future, Pete Radatti, a compure representative, said.

Unix computers also can act as carriers for MS-DOS and Apple Macintosh viruses
creating the Typhoid Mary syndrome.  DOS and Mac systems connected to the same
LAN as Unix computers can be reinfected continuously by the Unix systems where
the viruses are undetected.

---end excerpt--

While Unix-based viruses have been developed before (Tom Duff of Bell Labs
engineered a virus that propagates via executable binaries; numerous authors
have demonstrated simple viruses that propagate via shell scripts) I found this
report curious for two reasons:

1. The tactic of developing variations of hostile organisms in an attempt to
better understand them (and thus more effectively eradicate them) is well-known
in the biological and medical research communities.  However, normal research
practice includes a great deal of peer review, especially with respect to the
quarantine procedures.  The idea, of course, is to ensure that organisms more
hostile than those found in the environment do not escape; the peer review
process provides some measure of assurance to the public that reasonable
precautions have been taken in this regard.  Should a similar practice be
adopted for those researchers creating and studying computer viruses and worms?

2. I find it curious that such an anti-virus product has been developed for the
Unix market, where security problems due to viruses are much rarer than
security problems due to poor password selection, incorrect permission modes on
files, sendmail bugs, setuid programs, etc.  One of the many risks that crossed
my mind was that users coming from the PC/Mac worlds might be tempted to spend
$7500 (cost of the package described above) and then conclude that their
systems are reasonably secure -- even though the security area they've dealt
with is not one of the prime areas of concern for those working with Unix.  (In
fact, I would recommend instead that Unix admins spend $30 or so on either of
the excellent Unix security books by Curry (Addison-Wesley) or
Garfinkel/Spafford (O'Reilly), and avail themselves of some of the freely
available software, such as John F. Haugh II's "shadow", Alec Muffett's
"crack", or Dan Klein's "cops".)

Rich Kulawiec Cardiothoracic Imaging Research Center


"W. K. Gorman" <34AEJ7D@cmuvm.bitnet>
Fri, 8 Nov 91 15:30:16 CST
[This is a copy of letter to: <> from W.K. Gorman.]


In your UNSIGNED post in RISKS-12.62 you utter and publish a number of
spurious, gratuitous libels against myself with publicly presented, false and
malicious accusations of "lying", "bias", "yellow journalism", and "smear"
tactics on my part.

You also libel the Safeway food store chain itself with your unsubstantiated,
scattergun insinuations of "profiteering" on their part.

You libel The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) by inferring
that some irregularity attaches, or might attach, to their legitimate ownership
of a business, whether in whole, in part or as a controlling interest.

You compound your libel by accusing me of lying, seeking to justify your
tactics with the irrelevant assertion that Safeway is "publicly traded",
together with a fragment of their price history.

You in no way indicate that you are privy to any list of shareholders, nor do
you seek to justify your libel with facts in any form. Instead, you
deliberately gloss over the fact that any business corporation may be publicly
traded, yet the aggregate of all shares available for public trading may
nonetheless constitute a minority, (that is, a NON-controlling) interest in
that business. Since you claim to have called a stockbroker to obtain
information, in the absence of evidence to the contrary I must presume that
your failure to point out this fact was deliberate.

You have taken my purely informational post, which contained no pejorative or
derogatory information whatsoever, and transformed it into a vehicle from which
to launch a libelous electronic vendetta against me.

Having done all this, you have then presumed to make our moderator (PGN)
accomplice to your actions by publicly "chiding" him for not censoring this
post in accordance with your notions, then managing to convince him to let your
vicious personal attack slip through unedited.

It was obviously your intent to commit libel against me by the manner in which
you sent this post. It was unsigned. It was not sent privately as a criticism
to myself, but was deliberately and maliciously uttered and published in a
public forum in what seems only capable of interpretation as a preconceived,
premeditated attempt at libel directed against me.

Now quite simply, you have managed to demonstrate nothing beyond your ability
to generate needless flames on an already crowded network. Your claims and
allegations against me are false and libelous in their entirety.

To put in bluntly:


Signed:   W. K. Gorman <34AEJ7D@CMUVM.BITNET>

  [Here is part of WKG's justification TO ME as to why I should permit this
  strangely escalating sequence to continue:

     "Having published my original note, which contained NO pejorative or
     derogatory information whatsoever, you then specifically chose to publish
     the libelous comments *deliberately directed against me, personally* by
     <>. You cannot be an on-again, off-again
     moderator. If, as you now claim to think, my initial posting was
     unacceptable then so was the one from <>." ...
     W.K. Gorman

  YES.  They are both unacceptable *per se*, but having let the first one
  through, it somehow seems necessary to let the response through.  Clearly
  there are great risks in publishing such discourses.  Anyway, I already
  stated in RISKS-12.62 that I am sorry that I did not yank "Mormon-owned",
  which would have avoided the whole mess.  By allowing this message through it
  may escalate still further.  That is one of the risks of imMODERATION.  But
  WKG's message seems to be justified -- even if it is itself possibly a
  defensive overreaction -- under the circumstances.

  I need to note that I had absolutely no intention of libelling WKG.
  I hesitate to add that WKG's original note was also UNSIGNED.  I wish all of
  you -- and especially BITNET folks -- would at least sign your EMail!  PGN]

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