September 3, 2015

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Wickr: Putting the “non” in anonymity

[Let’s welcome new CITP blogger Pete Zimmerman, a first-year graduate student in the computer security group at Princeton. — Arvind Narayanan]

Following the revelations of wide-scale surveillance by US intelligence agencies and their allies, a myriad of services offering end-to-end encrypted communications have cropped up to take advantage of the increasing demand for privacy from surveillance. When coupled with anonymity, end-to-end encryption can prevent a central service provider from obtaining any information about its users or their communications.  However, maintaining anonymity is difficult while simultaneously offering a straightforward way for users to find each other.

Enter Wickr.  This startup offers a simple app featuring “military grade encryption” of text, photo, video, and voice messages as well as anonymous registration for its users. Wickr claims that it cannot identify who has registered with the service or which of its users are communicating with each other.  During registration, users enter their email address and/or phone number (non-Wickr IDs).  The app utilizes a cryptographic hash function (SHA-256 in this case) to obtain “anonymous” Wickr IDs from the non-Wickr IDs.  Wickr IDs are then stored server-side and used for discovery.  When your friends want to find you, they enter your phone number or email address, which is then put through the same hash function, resulting in the same output (Wickr ID).  Wickr looks this up in its database to determine if you’ve registered with the service to facilitate message exchange. This process simplifies the discovery of other users, supposedly without Wickr having the ability to identify the users of the anonymous service.

The problem here is that while it’s not always possible to determine the input to a hash function given the output, we can leverage the fact that the same input always yields the same output. If the number of possible inputs is small, we can simply try all of them.  Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme in a variety of applications as a result of misunderstanding cryptography — specifically, the fact that hash functions are not one-way if the input space is small.  A great explanation on the use of cryptographic hash functions in attempts to anonymize data can be found here.
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