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p1619 (disk): Security concerns of LRW and an alternative mode

Sorry for the long e-mail, but there are some important security issues with LRW that we need to look at before finalizing the standard.  These issues won't necessarily preclude using LRW, but I think it's important to know how NOT to use LRW.


This document discusses ways to attack LRW through algebraic weaknesses in the Galois Multiplier.  This attack becomes strong if Key2 (K2) looks similar to the plaintext (e.g. if K2 is an ASCII password).  The result of this attack is to leak 128-bits of plaintext for each detected collision (similar to ECB mode).    A covert channel within LRW is discussed.  Lastly, an alternative mode is proposed that eliminates these weaknesses.

Alternative mode:

I've attached a picture for a slightly different tweak mode that replaces the Galois multiplier with a second AES engine.  Has anyone seen a mode like this?  In particular, is there any known IP claims to this mode? (I do not make any claims myself)

I'm sending this out because it looks like LRW can leak information if the KEY2 looks similar to the plaintext.  We may want to add an alternative mode if people want a higher security level.

Here are some advantages of this alternative mode:
- Using I = 0 is secure (This is also true with LRW if Electronic Code Book mode is secure)
- Knowing the Tweak (T) does not help in recovering Key2 (whereas in LRW, knowledge of T completely reveals Key2)
- It is possible to implement this using less hardware by reusing the AES engine.  The throughput would be half as much, but this may not matter with laptop hard disks.
- Detection of collisions becomes significantly harder

Concerning LRW mode:

There is a possible security problem if Key2 is poorly chosen.  In particular, if Key2 has low entropy, low hamming weight, or long runs of binary 1s or 0s, (or is otherwise systematically non-random) it then becomes possible to detect situations where the AES engine encoded the same data (thus revealing 128-bits about the plaintext).  The problem is especially bad if Key2 is a relatively short ASCII password.  In this case, the Key2 would look very similar to ASCII data on the hard disk, making it easier to create collisions with the plaintext.

Recovering Key2 in LRW:

What happens if we take the XOR of two ciphertext blocks?  Generally speaking, we should get a pseudo-random number.  However, what happens when the AES engine encoded the same data?  By XORing the cipherblocks, we completely remove the output of the AES engine (which was the same) and are left only with data relating to Key2 (K2) and the IV (a.k.a. I).  Let's take a closer look at this:

(Let '+' be bitwise XOR, and '*' be a 128-bit Galois Field multiply; C? = Ciphertext, K2 = Key2, I? = IV, P? = plaintext; substitute '?' with 1 or 2):

From the LRW specification, we get these equations:

	C1 = (K2 * I1) + AES(K1, K2 * I1 + P1)
	C2 = (K2 * I2) + AES(K1, K2 * I2 + P2)

Now, assume that the output of the AES engine is the same for both these equations.  Here's what happens when we add the two lines:

	C1 + C2 = (K2 * I1) + (K2 * I2) + (AES1 + AES2)
	C1 + C2 = (K2 * I1) + (K2 * I2) + 0				(output of AES1 and AES2 matches)
	C1 + C2 = K2 * (I1 + I2)					(distributive law for finite fields)

Before going any further, take a look at the last line:  The sum of two ciphertexts involved in a collision equals Key2 times the two Is XORed together.  Now, let's assume that we are incrementing the least-significant digit of I each time.  In this case, (I1 XOR I2) = 1, assuming I1 is even and I2 immediately follows I1.  Note that the XOR operator will cancel-out anything within I1 or I2 that matches (e.g. the drive number).

IMPORTANT POINT: This equation holds even if we use the upper bits of I for a drive number or other unique identifier.

So what this means is that for every other consecutive pair of ciphertexts, we get this equation:

	C1 + C2 = K2 * (1) = K2

It then becomes trivial to recover K2.

Now, let's looks at what happens when K2 has low hamming weight (i.e. low number of binary 1s).  In general, taking (I1 + I2) will also have low hamming weight (this is because we don't vary the Is very much).    Because of the nature of the 128-bit multiplier, the result of K2 * (I1 + I2) will also have low hamming weight.  This is especially true if the most-significant bits of K2 are zero.  In this case, we may not even need to take the modulo of the primitive polynomial after expanding the multiplication.  Even if we did, the generator polynomial itself has low hamming weight and will not add too much to the final result (especially if I1 + I2 only has 1 bit set).

In this case, it becomes relatively easy to detect collisions within the AES engine by performing statistical analysis on all the combinations of the ciphertext blocks.  If we want to get more sophisticated, it would be possible to completely eliminate the effects of the Galois multiply altogether by dividing each ciphertext sum by (I1 + I2):

	Compute (C1 + C2) * (I1 + I2)^-1 = K2

Since I1 and I2 are known for each cipher block, this computation becomes straightforward.  In dedicated hardware, it could be possible to compute the inverse of I1 and I2 in about 128 clock cycles through successive squaring.  Frequently, (I1 + I2) will result in the same value, so it should be possible to precompute all the most common values, making a software-based attack feasible.

LRW Collisions:

Now, for this attack to be useful, it has to be somewhat likely that we get a collision.  A first guess would be to say that we wouldn't start getting collisions until the birthday limit of the cipher, which is around 2^64 ciphertext blocks (128 bits / 2).  However, this is assuming that the input into the AES engine is a totally random number.  In practice, this is not generally true.  In fact, the chance of a collision greatly increases when K2 looks very similar to the plaintext (or rather the XOR of two plaintext blocks).  Let's take the example of using an ASCII password for K2.  Furthermore, let's assume that the harddisk mostly contains ASCII characters.

How do we create a collision?  That is, how do we make the inputs of the AES engine equivalent?  Here is the equation for the input into the AES engine:

	AES(K1, K2 * I + P)

For a collision, we need an I and P that match this equation:

	AES(K1, K2 * I1 + P1) = AES(K1, K2 * I2 + P2)
	K2 * I1 + P1 = K2 * I2 + P2			(if the outputs of AES match, the inputs match)
	P1 + P2 = K2 * I1 + K2 * I2			(rearrange)
	P1 + P2 = K2 * (I1 + I2)			(distributive law)

Interestingly, we get that (I1 + I2) term again.  Keep in mind that this will generally have low hamming weight, making it so K2 * (I1 + I2) will also have low hamming weight.  In the case where I1 and I2 are consecutive, we get  P1 + P2 = K2 (because I1 + I2 = 1).

If P1, P2 and K2 are all ASCII strings, the average entropy will be much lower than 128 bits.  Some studies show that text contains about 1.5 bits of entropy per byte.  If this is the case, we could expect a total entropy of about 1.5 bits * 16 bytes = 24 bits.  The birthday attack would then succeed after about 2^12 = 4096 ciphertext blocks.  

In practice, there's probably more entropy than 1.5 bits.  However, if we say there is 4 bits of entropy per character, our birthday limit just went down from 2^64 to 2^32.  It would be quite reasonable for a harddisk to contain 64 GB of data to make this attack work.

Obviously, there is a lot of hand waving here.  We would probably want to do a study to see what the real numbers look like.

Here's the bottom line:

If K2 resembles the plaintext, it becomes possible to attack the data well below the theoretical birthday limit.

Ideally, the security of a cryptosystem should be completely independent of the data patterns.  This is true of both CBC and CTR modes.  ECB falls flat on its face in this regard.  It looks like LRW has some of the same characteristics as ECB.

Covert Channel with LRW:

If an application is running on the host computer that has knowledge of K2, it becomes possible to create a covert channel by writing blocks that intentionally create collisions.  This is done by writing blocks with the relationship P1 + P2 = K2 * (I1 + I2).  If several blocks are written in this manner, it becomes possible to detect this using the methods outlined above.  However, in this case, it doesn't matter if K2 is strong or weak because it's possible to write several consecutive blocks that contain collisions.  The attack algorithm would then search for consecutive blocks that have collisions.  Using this covert channel, it is possible to send binary information by either writing blocks with collisions or without.  It might even be possible to encode K1 in this manner, causing a total loss of security.

Notes on alternative mode:

The alternative proposed mode does not have the shortcomings mentioned above.  Since we have replaced the Galois multiplier with a second AES engine, we are now working with strong pseudorandom data for the tweak value.  None of the simple algebraic properties hold.  The birthday limit returns to 2^64 blocks because the output of the second AES engine is random.  Furthermore, if it was somehow possible to recover the Tweak value (T), this would not reveal Key2 (K2).  Lastly, there are no weak values for I to worry about (assuming AES is indistinguishable from an ideal cipher).

Let me know what you all think.

Matt Ball
Embedded Software Engineer
Quantum Corporation
4001 Discovery Drive, Suite 1100
Boulder, CO 80303
(720) 406-5766