Security Experts:

NIST Advisory Group Preaches Transparency in Development of Encryption Standards

A report released this week by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) stated it needs to increase its staff of cryptography experts and work to increase transparency.

The report comes out of a review process that was requested in the fall of 2013, when former NIST Director Patrick D. Gallagher asked the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT) to review NIST's guidelines in response to controversy that erupted following allegations of efforts by the NSA to undermine cryptography standards.

In the report, the committee stated that while NIST may seek the advice of the NSA on matters of cryptography, it must be in a position to analyze and reject it if warranted.

"The VCAT [Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology] recommends that NIST senior management reviews the current requirement for interaction with the NSA and requests changes where it hinders its ability to independently develop the best cryptographic standards to serve not only the United States Government but the broader community," according to the report.

VCAT also noted in the report that it was important for NIST to be open and transparent during the development of cryptographic standards, and to expand programs to engage academia and outside experts to aid in reviews.

"The VCAT recommends that NIST senior management reviews the current requirement for interaction with the NSA and requests changes where it hinders its ability to independently develop the best cryptographic standards to serve not only the United States Government but the broader community," according to the report.

"Ensuring we have a process that delivers strong cryptography and protects the integrity of our standards and guidelines is our highest priority," said Acting NIST Director Willie May, in a statement. "We appreciate this review by the VCAT and the individual Committee of Visitor experts. NIST has already taken several steps to strengthen the process for developing cryptographic standards and will carefully consider these recommendations."

Sol Cates, CSO of data security company Vormetric, said recent challenges around encryption standards - not just the Elliptical curve cryptography disclosures but also the discovery of vulnerabilities in OpenSSL and other issues as well - seem to point to the need for a strong, unbiased oversight and management of standards.

"NIST has a tarnished reputation now - especially among our international customers - but could well be the organization that provides this if they step up with both enhanced independent, and unbiased processes and the resources to make it happen," Cates said.

 The VCAT review was part of a larger initiative by NIST that included an internal review of its development process and the February 2014 release of a document outlining the principles behind that process. NIST IR 7977: DRAFT NIST Cryptographic Standards and Guidelines Development Process will be finalized by the end of 2014, and will include more detailed processes and procedures that incorporate feedback from the VCAT and the public.

"We will continue to work with the best cryptography experts in the world, both inside and outside of government," said May. "At the same time, we recognize and agree with the VCAT that NIST must strengthen its in-house cryptography capabilities to ensure we can reach independent conclusions about the merits of specific algorithms or standards."

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