By Florence Olsen
Dec. 9, 2005
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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