AES proved vulnerable by Microsoft researchers

Show that algorithm underlying most all of today's online transactions can be compromised

Researchers from Microsoft and the Belgian Katholieke Universiteit Leuven have discovered a way to break the widely used AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), the encryption algorithm used to secure most all online transactions and wireless communications.

Their attack (PDF) can recover an AES secret key from three to five times faster than previously thought possible, reported the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, a research university based in Belgium.

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The researchers caution that the attack is complex is nature, and so can not be easily carried out using existing technologies. In practice, the methodology used by the researchers would take billions of years of computer time to break the AES algorithm, they noted.

But the work, the result of a long-term cryptanalysis project, could be the first chink in the armor of the AES standard, previously considered unbreakable. When an encryption standard is evaluated for vital jobs such as securing financial transactions, security experts judge the algorithm's ability to withstand even the most extreme attacks. Today's seemingly secure encryption method could be more easily broken by tomorrow's faster computers, or by new techniques in number crunching.

The U.S. NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) agency commissioned AES in 2001, to replace the DES Digital Encryption Standard, which was then repeatedly being shown to be fragile even as it provided adequate security for most everyday tasks.

With this work, the "safety margin" of AES continues to erode, noted security expert Bruce Schneier in a blog posting. "Attacks always get better; they never get worse," he wrote, quoting an expert from the U.S. National Security Agency.

Though unwieldy to execute, the attack can be applied to all versions of AES.

K.U. Leuven researcher Andrey Bogdanov, Microsoft Research's Dmitry Khovratovich and Christian Rechberger from École Normale Supérieure, Paris, completed the work. Both Bogdanov and Rechberger had taken leave from their respective universities to work on the project with Microsoft Research.

The creators of AES, (PDF) Joan Daemen and Vincent Rijmen have acknowledged the validity of the attack, according to K.U. Leuven.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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