February 5, 2023

How is NSA breaking so much crypto?

There have been rumors for years that the NSA can decrypt a significant fraction of encrypted Internet traffic. In 2012, James Bamford published an article quoting anonymous former NSA officials stating that the agency had achieved a “computing breakthrough” that gave them “the ability to crack current public encryption.” The Snowden documents also hint at […]

Engineering an insider-attack-resistant email system and why you wouldn't want to use it

Earlier this week, Felten made the observation that the government eavesdropping on Lavabit could be considered as an insider attack against Lavabit users. This leads to the obvious question: how might we design an email system that’s resistant to such an attack? The sad answer is that we’ve had this technology for decades but it […]

Silk Road, Lavabit, and the Limits of Crypto

Yesterday we saw two stories that illustrate the limits of cryptography as a shield against government. In San Francisco, police arrested a man alleged to be Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), the operator of online drug market Silk Road. And in Alexandria, Virginia, a court unsealed documents revealing the tussle between the government and secure email […]

How the Nokia Browser Decrypts SSL Traffic: A "Man in the Client"

Over the past couple of days there has been some press coverage over security researcher Guarang Pandya’s report that the browser on his Nokia phone was sending all of his traffic to Nokia proxy servers, including his HTTPS traffic. The disturbing part of his report was evidence that Nokia is not just proxying, but actually […]

Understanding the HDCP Master Key Leak

On Monday, somebody posted online an array of numbers which purports to be the secret master key used by HDCP, a video encryption standard used in consumer electronics devices such as DVD players and TVs. I don’t know if the key is genuine, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that it is. What does the leak imply for HDCP’s security? And what does the leak mean for the industry, and for consumers?

HDCP is used to protect high-def digital video signals “on the wire,” for example on the cable connecting your DVD player to your TV. HDCP is supposed to do two things: it encrypts the content so that it can’t be captured off the wire, and it allows each endpoint to verify that the other endpoint is an HDCP-licensed device. From a security standpoint, the key step in HDCP is the initial handshake, which establishes a shared secret key that will be used to encrypt communications between the two devices, and at the same time allows each device to verify that the other one is licensed.

As usual when crypto is involved, the starting point for understanding the system’s design is to think about the secret keys: how many there are, who knows them, and how they are used. HDCP has a single master key, which is supposed to be known only by the central HDCP authority. Each device has a public key, which isn’t a secret, and a private key, which only that device is supposed to know. There is a special key generation algorithm (“keygen” for short) that is used to generate private keys. Keygen uses the secret master key and a public key, to generate the unique private key that corresponds to that public key. Because keygen uses the secret master key, only the central authority can do keygen.

Each HDCP device (e.g., a DVD player) has baked into it a public key and the corresponding private key. To get those keys, the device’s manufacturer needs the help of the central authority, because only the central authority can do keygen to determine the device’s private key.

Now suppose that two devices, which we’ll call A and B, want to do a handshake. A sends its public key to B, and vice versa. Then each party combines its own private key with the other party’s public key, to get a shared secret key. This shared key is supposed to be secret—i.e., known only to A and B—because making the shared key requires having either A’s private key or B’s private key.

Note that A and B actually did different computations to get the shared secret. A combined A’s private key with B’s public key, while B combined B’s private key with A’s public key. If A and B did different computations, how do we know they ended up with the same value? The short answer is: because of the special mathematical properties of keygen. And the security of the scheme depends on this: if you have a private key that was made using keygen, then the HDCP handshake will “work” for you, in the sense that you’ll end up getting the same shared key as the party on the other end. But if you tried to use a random “private key” that you cooked up on your own, then the handshake won’t work: you’ll end up with a different shared key than the other device, so you won’t be able to talk to that device.

Now we can understand the implications of the master key leaking. Anyone who knows the master key can do keygen, so the leak allows everyone to do keygen. And this destroys both of the security properties that HDCP is supposed to provide. HDCP encryption is no longer effective because an eavesdropper who sees the initial handshake can use keygen to determine the parties’ private keys, thereby allowing the eavesdropper to determine the encryption key that protects the communication. HDCP no longer guarantees that participating devices are licensed, because a maker of unlicensed devices can use keygen to create mathematically correct public/private key pairs. In short, HDCP is now a dead letter, as far as security is concerned.

(It has been a dead letter, from a theoretical standpoint, for nearly a decade. A 2001 paper by Crosby et al. explained how the master secret could be reconstructed given a modest number of public/private key pairs. What Crosby predicted—a total defeat of HDCP—has now apparently come to pass.)

The impact of HDCP’s failure on consumers will probably be minor. The main practical effect of HDCP has been to create one more way in which your electronics could fail to work properly with your TV. This is unlikely to change. Mainstream electronics makers will probably continue to take HDCP licenses and to use HDCP as they are now. There might be some differences at the margin, where manufacturers feel they can take a few more liberties to make things work for their customers. HDCP has been less a security system than a tool for shaping the consumer electronics market, and that is unlikely to change.