RSA Toolkit Warning: Experts Say Developers Better Shut The Door

This report originally appeared on the CRN Tech News App for iOS and Windows 8.

Software and encryption experts told CRN that RSA, the security division of EMC, tarnished its reputation when it chose to set its encryption toolkit for software developers to implement a controversial encryption algorithm by default. The blunder could have widespread implications, they said, and other technology companies may follow with similar announcements.

RSA warned software developers Sept. 19 that its BSafe toolkit supported an encryption algorithm believed to contain a hidden back door. The modification, uncovered years ago, could enable it to be used in U.S. government surveillance activities. An RSA spokesperson issued a statement in an attempt to clarify the advisory issued to developers.

"RSA always acts in the best interest of its customers and under no circumstances does RSA design or enable any back doors in our products," the firm said. "Decisions about the features and functionality of RSA products are our own."

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The issue could impact tens of thousands of applications that support data encryption, experts said. In addition to its use in Web applications, the contentious Dual EC DRBG encryption algorithm may have been implemented to secure communications on some websites.

"It's not the users of the RSA toolkit, but also the results," said Robert David Graham, a noted cryptography expert and CEO of security consultancy Errata Security. "For example, many RSA certificates used to protect secure Web transactions [SSL] may need to generate new keys."

The impact of the advisory goes beyond RSA products, according to Graham. Software developers also need to check their products for the weak algorithm if they used Microsoft's crypto libraries or the OpenSSL library, he said.

Software security expert Gary McGraw told CRN that RSA's announcement could have widespread implications for ISVs and businesses that use applications that employ encryption. Software developers were correct in implementing encryption by using RSA's toolkit rather than rolling out their own implementation, McGraw said, because they are using an approach supported by a vendor with encryption at its core.

"If the toolkit was used in the past, software developers should go check and make sure they change it," McGraw said. "Businesses need to be aware of this and be asking more questions."

McGraw said he believed RSA likely set its software development toolkit's encryption to the algorithm by default to the encryption algorithm because it was fashionable at the time of the toolkit's release.

"It's reasonable that developers would make the assumption that the default is probably the best," McGraw said. "The important lesson here is that the software that you write is impacted by lots of software that someone else wrote even when it comes to security features."

Businesses need someone with knowledge of the code base to check if the weaker algorithm is being used, but many companies may no longer have access to the source code, said Chris Eng, vice president of research at Veracode. Eng said he believes that businesses would be far better off focusing less on fears over government intrusion and more on vulnerabilities and configuration weaknesses commonly targeted by cybercriminals.

"With all the other stuff out there that hasn't been patched at all, there is a more imminent threat of remote code execution being attackable by worse threat actors than the U.S. government," Eng said.