NSA posts notice about faster, lighter crypto

"Case for elliptic curve cryptography"

The National Security Agency wants federal agencies to consider using a group of algorithms it refers to as Suite B to satisfy future cryptographic requirements. Suite B contains NSA-approved cryptographic algorithms of various key sizes to protect classified and unclassified but sensitive information. NSA has posted a notice about Suite B on its Web site.

With little fanfare, the federal government has been conducting a cryptographic modernization program for the past several years. Suite B is part of that modernization effort.

Agencies preparing to issue mandatory federal identity cards containing cryptographic software should be aware of Suite B, even though the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 201 for identity cards makes no specific reference to it, said Brendan Ziolo, marketing director at Certicom. The company’s elliptic curve cryptographic (ECC) algorithms are included in Suite B.

FIPS 201 allows agencies to choose ECC or Rivest-Shamir-Aldeman (RSA) algorithms for digital signatures and cryptographic key exchanges. The standard is not yet completely aligned with NSA’s guidance on Suite B, Ziolo said. But if agencies want to simplify their transition to Suite B, he added, they should ask identity card suppliers about including ECC algorithms on the cards that agencies must begin issuing next year under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12.

ECC offers greater security and more efficient performance than RSA and other widely used first-generation public key algorithms, according to NSA’s notice. “As vendors look to upgrade their systems, they should seriously consider the elliptic curve alternative[s] for the computational and bandwidth advantages they offer at comparable security,” the notice states.

Agencies and their suppliers might consider building FIPS 201-compliant identity cards with both RSA and ECC algorithms or, at least, they should have an ECC transition plan, Ziolo said.

For the federal identity card program, agencies have to buy more than smart cards. They must also acquire card readers and have access to a public-key infrastructure (PKI). “Card readers need to catch up so they can support ECC,” Ziolo said. “The PKI backend will need to support ECC as well,” he said.

In October 2003, NSA licensed 26 ECC patents from Certicom for $25 million. Because ECC offers small key sizes, it is suited for small devices, such as smart cards, for which speedy cryptography is also desirable, Ziolo said.

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