Information security is hard. Really hard. But all too often the face of our failure is not cutting edge research with intricate implementation, but rather trivial buffer overflows, databases with plaintext passwords, or binaries named tacos_and_malware.exe.
'tis a bleak and barren landscape of horrors and awful things untold.
That said, amidst our dystopian present, there are a few critically important projects doing great work to push the needle forward on security, and I'd like a moment in this festive Thanksgiving season to recognize their outstanding work:
- u2f: Universal second factor. This is a standard for hardware devices which provide a "second factor" for logging into websites, replacing "Google Authenticator" on your phone. The thing that makes u2f really outstanding is that not only does it protect against password theft, but also protects against phishing. Phishing is one of the most pernicious attack vectors, as it's demonstrably impossible (to say nothing of fundamentally unreasonable) to ask people to stop clicking links in their email. A widely deployed cryptographic solution to phishing would be a tremendous victory. u2f devices are currently available for sale.
- letsencrypt: Lets Encrypt is a new certificate authority launching in just a week. It will provide free certificates to website operators, as well as an API and tooling for automatic certificate provisioning. The price point and the automation will be a huge help to getting more websites deployed with HTTPS, bringing us to a world where MITM-free is the default for web browsing, not the special privilege of banks. It's targeting a launch on December 3rd, and is accepting donations.
- Rust: Rust is a new programming language, whose development is being funded by Mozilla. Rust is important because it combines the low-levelness and performance of C with the safety of a higher-level language. A ton of software vulnerabilities are still caused by memory-unsafety and Rust goes a long way to obliterating those. Rust's 1.0 release was earlier this year.
- X25519/Ed25519: X25519 is an elliptic curve key exchange algorithm, and Ed25519 is an elliptic curve signature algorithm, both designed by Dan Bernstein. They are important for two reasons: a) they remove concerns that some have about a theoretical NSA backdoor in the current crop of elliptic curves (notably P-256), and b) they are easier to implement correctly and provide increased resistance against all manner of side channel attacks. Uptake of elliptic curve cryptography is important because algorithms such as RSA are proving weaker than we expected, due to advances in "index calculus". They are currently working their way through IETF standardization and will hopefully find their way into a TLS stack near you shortly. (There's also X448 and Ed448 which are similar, but have a larger key size).
- Chromebook: It's the holiday season, which means I just spent an hour de-malwaring my family's computers. Chromebooks bring to the desktop much needed sandboxing, preventing malicious content for taking over things like your bank's website. Chromebooks achieve this by moving everything to run under the web's security model, whereas iOS achieved similar ends using native sandboxing. Chromebooks are available for sale now.
Hi, I'm Alex. I'm currently at a startup called Alloy. Before that I was a engineer working on Firefox security and before that at the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.