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U.S. government to set new standard for advanced encryption

August 25, 1998
Web posted at: 11:15 AM EDT

by Elinor Mills


(IDG) -- The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is reviewing 15 algorithm proposals to search for one that will replace the 56-bit Data Encryption Standard (DES) that was recently cracked, the agency announced last week.

The new standard, to be called Advanced Encryption Standard or AES, is expected to endure for at least 30 years, said Miles Smid, manager of the security technology group at NIST. It will become the government standard and will most likely be adopted by the private sector, as DES was, he said. AES will be available on a royalty-free basis.

NIST knew long before DES was cracked in July that the technology was becoming outdated. "We began this process sooner because we did realize that DES was going to need to be replaced in the future," said Smid. The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, first requested proposals for AES in September 1997.

The 15 AES proposals were announced at the First AES Candidate Conference in Ventura, California, which started yesterday and concludes tomorrow. "There have even been some weaknesses pointed out at this conference" in the proposals, Smid said.

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The evaluation period, during which experts will be asked to test the strength and speed of each proposal, will end April, 1999, and the list will be narrowed down to five top proposals. The winner will be selected by 2000, but is not likely to be formally announced until 2001 after a public comment period, according to Smid.

The second AES conference will be held March 22 and 23 in Rome. DES, developed by IBM Corp. and adopted by NIST in 1977, has only one key size -- 56 bits, which is the length of the encryption algorithm. AES will have three different key sizes: 128 bits, 192 bits and 256 bits. The longer the key size the harder it is to crack.

In the meantime, NIST is recommending companies use Triple DES -- which involves three different DES operations to encrypt and decode -- if they feel DES is not secure enough, Smid said.

It is unclear how or if the new encryption standard will affect the U.S. government's controversial policy which severely restricts the export of encryption stronger than 56-bits. U.S. software companies complain that the policy harms them because strong encryption is widely available outside the U.S. and U.S. vendors are losing money as a result.

The U.S. government argues that it needs to control the export of strong encryption for national security purposes to fight terrorism. The government wants vendors to develop encryption software that includes a key recovery mechanism whereby the government could get access to the algorithm to decode a message for law enforcement purposes. Vendors are generally opposed to that plan.

Smid noted that NIST's public contest to find the next generation encryption standard is a radical change from the government's previously closed procedure for adopting DES. "It's a breakthrough in the way the government and the public sector are coming up with a standard," he said.

Ten of the AES proposals come from the U.S., but other countries represented are Canada, South Korea, Norway, France, Japan, Costa Rica, Australia, Germany, the U.K. and Israel. Companies submitting proposals include Deutsche Telekom AG of Germany, NTT Corp. of Japan, and in the U.S. IBM, Entrust Technologies Inc., RSA Laboratories, Cylink Corp. and Counterpane Systems, which is headed by cryptography expert Bruce Schneier.

Elinor Mills is a San Francisco-based Editor at Large for the IDG News Service.

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