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The Doghouse: Crown Sterling

A decade ago, the Doghouse was a regular feature in both my email newsletter Crypto-Gram and my blog. In it, I would call out particularly egregious — and amusing — examples of cryptographic “snake oil.”

I dropped it both because it stopped being fun and because almost everyone converged on standard cryptographic libraries, which meant standard non-snake-oil cryptography. But every so often, a new company comes along that is so ridiculous, so nonsensical, so bizarre, that there is nothing to do but call it out.

Crown Sterling is complete and utter snake oil. The company sells “TIME AI,” “the world’s first dynamic ‘non-factor’ based quantum AI encryption software,” “utilizing multi-dimensional encryption technology, including time, music’s infinite variability, artificial intelligence, and most notably mathematical constancies to generate entangled key pairs.” Those sentence fragments tick three of my snake-oil warning signs — from 1999! — right there: pseudo-math gobbledygook (warning sign #1), new mathematics (warning sign #2), and extreme cluelessness (warning sign #4).

More: “In March of 2019, Grant identified the first Infinite Prime Number prediction pattern, where the discovery was published on Cornell University’s www.arXiv.org titled: ‘Accurate and Infinite Prime Number Prediction from Novel Quasi-Prime Analytical Methodology.’ The paper was co-authored by Physicist and Number Theorist Talal Ghannam PhD. The discovery challenges today’s current encryption framework by enabling the accurate prediction of prime numbers.” Note the attempt to leverage Cornell’s reputation, even though the preprint server is not peer-reviewed and allows anyone to upload anything. (That should be another warning sign: undeserved appeals to authority.) PhD student Mark Carney took the time to refute it. Most of it is wrong, and what’s right isn’t new.

I first encountered the company earlier this year. In January, Tom Yemington from the company emailed me, asking to talk. “The founder and CEO, Robert Grant is a successful healthcare CEO and amateur mathematician that has discovered a method for cracking asymmetric encryption methods that are based on the difficulty of finding the prime factors of a large quasi-prime numbers. Thankfully the newly discovered math also provides us with much a stronger approach to encryption based on entangled-pairs of keys.” Sounds like complete snake-oil, right? I responded as I usually do when companies contact me, which is to tell them that I’m too busy.

In April, a colleague at IBM suggested I talk with the company. I poked around at the website, and sent back: “That screams ‘snake oil.’ Bet you a gazillion dollars they have absolutely nothing of value — and that none of their tech people have any cryptography expertise.” But I thought this might be an amusing conversation to have. I wrote back to Yemington. I never heard back — LinkedIn suggests he left in April — and forgot about the company completely until it surfaced at Black Hat this year.

Robert Grant, president of Crown Sterling, gave a sponsored talk: “The 2019 Discovery of Quasi-Prime Numbers: What Does This Mean For Encryption?” I didn’t see it, but it was widely criticized and heckled. Black Hat was so embarrassed that it removed the presentation from the conference website. (Parts of it remain on the Internet. Here’s a short video from the company, if you want to laugh along with everyone else at terms like “infinite wave conjugations” and “quantum AI encryption.” Or you can read the company’s press release about what happened at Black Hat, or Grant’s Twitter feed.)

Grant has no cryptographic credentials. His bio — on the website of something called the “Resonance Science Foundation” — is all over the place: “He holds several patents in the fields of photonics, electromagnetism, genetic combinatorics, DNA and phenotypic expression, and cybernetic implant technologies. Mr. Grant published and confirmed the existence of quasi-prime numbers (a new classification of prime numbers) and their infinite pattern inherent to icositetragonal geometry.”

Grant’s bio on the Crown Sterling website contains this sentence, absolutely beautiful in its nonsensical use of mathematical terms: “He has multiple publications in unified mathematics and physics related to his discoveries of quasi-prime numbers (a new classification for prime numbers), the world’s first predictive algorithm determining infinite prime numbers, and a unification wave-based theory connecting and correlating fundamental mathematical constants such as Pi, Euler, Alpha, Gamma and Phi.” (Quasi-primes are real, and they’re not new. They’re numbers with only large prime factors, like RSA moduli.)

Near as I can tell, Grant’s coauthor is the mathematician of the company: “Talal Ghannam — a physicist who has self-published a book called The Mystery of Numbers: Revealed through their Digital Root as well as a comic book called The Chronicles of Maroof the Knight: The Byzantine.” Nothing about cryptography.

There seems to be another technical person. Ars Technica writes: “Alan Green (who, according to the Resonance Foundation website, is a research team member and adjunct faculty for the Resonance Academy) is a consultant to the Crown Sterling team, according to a company spokesperson. Until earlier this month, Green — a musician who was ‘musical director for Davy Jones of The Monkees’ — was listed on the Crown Sterling website as Director of Cryptography. Green has written books and a musical about hidden codes in the sonnets of William Shakespeare.”

None of these people have demonstrated any cryptographic credentials. No papers, no research, no nothing. (And, no, self-publishing doesn’t count.)

After the Black Hat talk, Grant — and maybe some of those others — sat down with Ars Technica and spun more snake oil. They claimed that the patterns they found in prime numbers allows them to break RSA. They’re not publishing their results “because Crown Sterling’s team felt it would be irresponsible to disclose discoveries that would break encryption.” (Snake-oil warning sign #7: unsubstantiated claims.) They also claim to have “some very, very strong advisors to the company” who are “experts in the field of cryptography, truly experts.” The only one they name is Larry Ponemon, who is a privacy researcher and not a cryptographer at all.

Enough of this. All of us can create ciphers that we cannot break ourselves, which means that amateur cryptographers regularly produce amateur cryptography. These guys are amateurs. Their math is amateurish. Their claims are nonsensical. Run away. Run, far, far, away.

But be careful how loudly you laugh when you do. Not only is the company ridiculous, it’s litigious as well. It has sued ten unnamed “John Doe” defendants for booing the Black Hat talk. (It also sued Black Hat, which may have more merit. The company paid good money to have its talk presented amongst actual peer-reviewed talks. For Black Hat to remove its nonsense may very well be a breach of contract.)

Maybe Crown Sterling can file a meritless lawsuit against me instead for this post. I’m sure it would think it’d result in all sorts of positive press coverage. (Although any press is good press, so maybe it’s right.) But it I can prevent others from getting taken in by this stuff, it would be a good thing.

EDITED TO ADD: Crown Sterling paid $115K for that Black Hat sponsorship.

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Teaching a Neural Network to Encrypt

Researchers have trained a neural network to encrypt its communications.

In their experiment, computers were able to make their own form of encryption using machine learning, without being taught specific cryptographic algorithms. The encryption was very basic, especially compared to our current human-designed systems. Even so, it is still an interesting step for neural nets, which the authors state “are generally not meant to be great at cryptography:.

This story is more about AI and neural networks than it is about cryptography. The algorithm isn’t any good, but is a perfect example of what I’ve heard called “Schneier’s Law“: Anyone can design a cipher that they themselves cannot break.

Research paper. Note that the researchers work at Google.

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