Comparison of ciphers
Java supports a number of standard symmetric and asymmetric encryption algorithms out of the box.
This makes it easy to perform common tasks such as RSA encryption in Java. There are two broad issues to consider:
- choosing the encryption algorithm in the first place;
- choosing the key size and other configuration options. An inappropriate
choice of key size or block mode, for example, could render encryption
compromised or worthless.
Which encryption algorithm to use in practice, and how to configure it, will depend on a number of criteria:
- how secure the algorithm is currently judged to be in the
- the performance characteristics of the algorithm (e.g. the
"raw speed" of the algorithm, and whether it supports parallel encryption);
- how politically safe a decision it is to use a particular algorithm
(paradoxically, this doesn't necessarily depend directly on the algorithm's security);
- whether you have to interact with a legacy system.
Summary of algorithms
We compare measured speed of encryption with various algorithms available as
standard in Sun's JDK, and then give a summary of various other characteristics
of those algorithms. The encryption algorithms we consider here are AES (with 128
and 256-bit keys), DES, Triple DES, RC4 (with a 256-bit key) and
Blowfish (with a 256-bit key).
First, the easy bit. Figure 1 shows the time
taken to encrypt various numbers of 16-byte blocks of data using the algorithms
Figure 1: Comparison of encryption times for various common
symmetric encryption algorithms provided as standard in Java 6.
It's important to note right from the beginning that beyond some ridiculous
point, it's not worth sacrificing speed for security. However, the
measurements will still help us make certain decisions.
Table 1 gives a summary of the main features of each encryption algorithm, with what
I believe is a fair overview of the algorithm's current security status.
|Algorithm||Key size(s)||Speed||Speed depends on key size?||Security / comments|
||Of questionable security; may be secure for moderate numbers of
encrypted sessions of moderate length.
RC4 has the redeeming feature of being fast. However,
it has various weaknesses in the random number sequence that it uses:
see Klein (2008)1.
Believed secure, but
with less attempted cryptanalysis than other algorithms. Attempts
to cryptanalyse Blowfish soon after publication are promising (Schneier, 19952 & 19963).
But, unlike AES, it doesn't appear to have received much attention recently
in the cryptographic literature. Blowfish has been superseded by Twofish,
but the latter is not supported as standard in Java (at least, not in Sun's JDK).
|AES||128, 192, 256||Fast||Yes|
Secure, though with some reservations from the crypto community.
It has the advantage of allowing a 256-bit key size, which should protect
against certain future attacks
(collision attacks and potential quantum
that would have 264 complexity with a 128-bit key
and could become viable in the lifetime of your data.
Insecure: A $10,000 Copacobana machine can find a DES key in an average of a week, as (probably) could a botnet with thousands of machines.
The simple answer is: "Don't use it– it's not safe". (RFC 4772).
Table 1: Characteristics of commonly used encryption algorithms included in Java 6.
|Triple DES||112/168, but equivalent security of 80/112||Very slow||No
Moderately secure, especially for small data sizes. The 168-bit variant estimated by NIST (2006) to keep data secure until 20304.
Triple DES performs three DES operations (encrypt-decrypt-encrypt), using either two
or three different keys.
The 168-bit (three-key) variant of Triple DES is generally considered to offer "112 bits of security",
due to a so-called meet-in-the-middle attack.
AES offers a higher level of security for
lower CPU cost.
Remarks on AES
AES stands for Advanced Encryption Standard and is actually an algorithm
that was originally called Rijndael, after its inventors Rijmen & Daemen.
It is the algorithm that most people will end up using unless they have a strong reason
to use anything else:
- it is a politically safe decision:
the encryption standard of the US National Institute of Standards
and Technology (NIST), and the US government reportedly approves AES
with 192 or 256-bit keys for encrypting top secret documents
(or put another way, your boss won't sack you for choosing AES...);
- it is largely considered secure, though with some reservations:
- nobody yet has (publicly) a full attack on AES, or a partial attack that
is practical (though some impractical partial attacks exist5);
- however, AES is algebraically simpler than other block ciphers: effectively,
it can be written as a series of mathematical equations, and there is a worry that somebody
could demonstrate a way to solve those equations (see Ferguson & Schneier,
Practical Cryptography, pp. 57-58);
- the NSA may have chosen Rijndael as they secretly know how to break it,
or secretly estimated that they could develop a way to break it.
- it is fast (Ferguson & Schneier (op cit), p. 59, argue that this is the
reason it was picked over Serpent as the AES standard).
On the next page, we look at the issue of choosing and
setting key sizes for encryption in Java.
1. Klein, A. (2008), Attacks on the RC4 stream cipher, Designs, Codes & Cryptography 48(3).
2. Schneier, B. (1995), The Blowfish Encryption Algorithm— One Year Later, Dr Dobb's Journal.
3. Schneier, B. (1996), Applied Cryptography, Wiley & Sons, p. 399.
4. NIST (2006), Recommendation for Key Management: Part 1, p. 66.
5. See Ferguson, N. et al (2000),
Improved cryptalysis of Rijndael
and Biryukov & Khovratovich (2009), Related-key Cryptanalysis of the Full AES-192 and AES-256.
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