The last cipher I’m going to talk about is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). With this, we’ll have covered about half of the important algorithms needed for a transport security implementation, such as SSL. AES started out as a contest to replace DES for use by the US government. Several submissions were made, including one called Rijndael by Joan Daemen and Vincent Rijmen. Rijndael won the contest and became AES.

AES is a 128-bit block cipher with a variable length key from 128 to 256 bits. Encryption keys of 128 bits are the current minimum standard for encrypting information that has an expected lifetime of several years. The implementation of AES is significantly more complicated than for DES. AES has a key expansion stage and rounds that consist of four operations on a matrix of state bytes. The matrix operations mix in bytes from the key, modify the elements of the matrix, permute the entries in the rows of the matrix, and transform the matrix columns. These rounds are repeated 10 to 14 times depending on the size of the encryption key. The final round concludes by mixing in additional key bytes.

Rather than writing your own implementation of AES or any of the algorithms that I’ve been talking about, you should get a standard and well-tested implementation. Most of these algorithms are available in the System.Security.Cryptography namespace.

The only significant attacks on AES are known as side-channel attacks. A side-channel attack uses observations of coincidental information, such as power usage, cache hits, and execution times, to extract information about the internal state of the algorithm. If AES is run on a general-purpose processor and another process can force you to encrypt text with your secret key, then that process can extract the encryption key in a surprisingly short amount of time. When there is a lot of activity on the system, these attacks are still possible but may require averaging of many more measurements to obtain the answer. Most algorithms are vulnerable to side-channel attacks if you give attackers enough access to the device.

Next time: Introducing MessageState

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