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Weak Crypto

Cryptographic primitives are often the only practical way to solve important classes of problems, but it's easy to make mistakes when using crypto.* APIs. Failing to identify third-party modules that use crypto (or should be using crypto) and determining whether they are using it properly can lead to a false sense of security.

"Developer-Resistant Cryptography" by Cairns & Steel notes:

The field of cryptography is inherently difficult. Cryptographic API development involves narrowing a large, complex field into a small set of usable functions. Unfortunately, these APIs are often far from simple.


In 2013, study by Egele et al. revealed even more startling figures [1]. In this study, six rules were defined which, if broken, indicated the use of insecure protocols. More than 88% of the 11,000 apps analyzed broke at least one rule. Of the rule-breaking apps, most would break not just one, but multiple rules. Some of these errors were attributed to negligence, for example test code included in release versions. However, in most cases it appears developers unknowingly created insecure apps.


The human aspect can be improved through better education for developers. Sadly, this approach is unlikely to be a complete solution. It is unreasonable to expect a developer to be a security expert when most of their time is spent on other aspects of software design.

Code that uses cryptography badly can seem like it's working as intended until an attacker unravels it. Testing code that uses cryptographic APIs is hard. It's hard to write a unit test to check that a skilled cryptographer can't efficiently extract information from a random looking string or compute a random looking string that passes a verifier.

Weak cryptography can also mask other problems. For example, a security auditor might try to check for leaks of email addresses by creating a dummy account Carol <> and check for the string in data served in responses, while recursing into substrings encoded using base64, gzip, or other common encodings. If some of that data is poorly encrypted, then the auditor might falsely conclude that an attacker who can't break strong encryption does not have access to emails.

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