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NIST told to grow a pair and kick NSA to the curb

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The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been urged to hire more crypto experts so it can confidently tell the NSA to take a hike.

A report (PDF) from NIST's Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT) – which scrutinizes and advises the institute – scolds NIST for being too reliant on the NSA's cryptography expertise. VCAT cited the adoption and backing the use of the dodgy Dual EC DRBG algorithm, an NSA-championed random number generator that was later found to be flawed [PDF].

Random numbers are vital in cryptography, as they thwart an eavesdropper attempting to decrypt intercepted enciphered data.

The report was launched in the wake of allegations from whistleblower Edward Snowden that the NSA deliberately weakened Dual EC DRBG and other algorithms for surveillance purposes. Despite having been warned about the insecurities years ago, the report found that NIST – which is part of the US Department of Commerce – relied heavily on input from the NSA in maintaining the standard.

VCAT members believe that to guard itself from such scandals in the future, NIST will need to become more transparent and better engage with the security community as a whole.

According to the VCAT report, a lack of qualified personnel was a key shortfall for the NIST. Without enough experts on hand, the institute was unable to spot and address the weaknesses in the Dual EC DRBG and the SP 800-90 standard.

To remedy the issue, the committee is recommending that NIST hire additional staff versed in cryptography as well as reach out to academic institutions and security vendors when building and analyzing encryption standards.

NIST will also need to cut ties with the NSA.

"NIST may seek the advice of the NSA on cryptographic matters but it must be in a position to assess it and reject it when warranted," the report suggests. "This may be accomplished by NIST itself or by engaging the cryptographic community during the development and review of any particular standard."

The report goes on to suggest other transparency measures, including the use of open competitions to build new standards and maintaining better documentation on how standards are developed.

NIST said that it would continue to study the advisory board's findings ahead of releasing a new cryptographic standards and guidelines development process by the end of the calendar year. ®

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