Sunday, March 9, 2008

Seagate Includes IEEE P1619.3 in an FDE Whitepaper

Seagate recently published a white paper depicting the IEEE 1619.3 key management protocol used in a system containing Seagate Full Disk Encryption (FDE) hard disks. It's an interesting read if you're into the hardware encryption scene.

The white paper mentions using existing key management systems, like IBM's EKM (Enterprise Key Management) system, with storage systems that include Seagate FDE hard disks

The FDE encrypts the hard disk data using an AES-128 encryption key (NIST's Advanced Encryption Standard), and stores the only copy of this encryption key on the hard disk in encrypted form. To decrypt the encryption key, you need an 'authentication key'. The FDE also stores a cryptographic hash of the authentication key, which is used to verify whether the user entered the correct authentication key.

The beauty of this setup is that it is possible to perform a fast secure-erase of the hard disk by simply erasing the encrypted encryption key. Also, if an attacker was able to open the hard disk or compromise the firmware, the only available information is the encrypted encryption key and the hash of the authentication key. Without the authentication key, it is impossible to get any data off the hard disk.

There are a few caveats here, however:
  1. In the absence of a key management server, the authentication key is likely a password entered by the user, which makes the strength of the encryption only as strong as the weaker of the entropy of the password (which is typically very low) or the physical security of the hard disk (which is unknown). If someone is able to comprise the firmware of the FDE hard disk to reveal the hashed authentication key or encrypted encryption key, then it becomes possible to launch an off-line dictionary attack against likely passwords, making it possible to decrypt the data.
  2. Neither the white paper nor any other source I've seen describes the AES encryption mode used for protecting the data and the encryption key in the FDE. Just using AES-128 is not sufficient to ensure a high-level of security -- you need to use AES in a secure mode of operation. For example, using AES in Electronic Code Book (ECB) mode is notorious for leaking a significant amount of data -- see an example of Tux (the Linux penguin) encrypted using ECB as compared to other modes. I'm not saying that Seagate is using a bad mode of operation -- it's just that we don't know.
  3. The white paper mentions P1619.3 even though the standard is still in relatively early stages. On the one hand, I like seeing publicity for P1619.3, but on the other it's hard to say exactly how it will look in the end. It may not be what we expect.
Overall, I'm very happy to see encryption enter the hard disk market and to see increased interest in the 1619.3 work. The FDE hard disk is certainly sufficient for most user's security needs. However, for the agencies with high security needs (like the government), the lack of FIPS 140-2 certification and encryption mode disclosure makes it a difficult (if not impossible) purchase. Hopefully after P1619.3 helps create interchangeable key management solutions, we'll see the FDE volumes increase enough to justify improvements like FIPS certification.

1 comment:

  1. Lennie Dymoke-BradshawMarch 31, 2009 at 6:08 AM

    You have "Priciple" on the header page.
    I think you mean "Principle".

    Lennie Dymoke-Bradshaw


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.