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Burning Trust at the Quantum Village at DEFCON 30

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already knew that I attended DEFCON 30 in Las Vegas.

If you were there in person, you probably also saw this particular nerd walking around:

That’s me, wearing a partial fursuit.

The collar reads “Warning: PUNS” in a marquee.

In addition to being shamelessly furry and meeting a lot of really cool hackers (including several readers of this blog!), I attended several village talks (and at least one Sky Talk).

For some of these talks, I attended in fursuit. For others, I opted instead to bring my laptop and take notes. (Doing both things is ill-advised because it’s hard to type with paws, and the risk of laptop damage from excess sweat gives me pause, so it was one or the other.)

To be terse, my DEFCON experience was overwhelmingly positive. However, one talk at the Quantum Village had an extremely sus abstract (which was pointed out to me by Cendyne), so I decided to attend in person and see for myself.

Screenshot of the talk abstract.

Unfortunately, my intuition as a security engineer did not let me down, as we’ll explore below. But first, some background information.

What is DEFCON, Exactly?

(Feel free to skip this section if you already know.)

DEFCON is a hacking and security conference that takes place every year in Las Vegas, NV.

Unlike the stuffy Industry- and vendor-oriented events, DEFCON is more Community focused. Consequently, DEFCON has an inextricable counterculture element to it, and that makes it unique among security conferences.

(Some of the Security BSides events may also retain the same counterculture attitudes. However, that depends heavily on the attitudes of the local security/hacking scene. Give them a chance if you live near one, or consider starting your own.)

Put another way: DEFCON is to punk rock what USENIX is to classical. You’ll find good practitioners in both genres, and a surprising amount of overlap, but they can be appreciated independently too.

Which is why very few people balked at a group of furries running through Closing Ceremonies.

This wouldn’t happen at Black Hat!

The weirdness and acceptance of DEFCON is a reflection of the diversity of the infosec community, and that’s a damn good thing.

In addition to DEFCON’s main track, there are a lot of so-called Villages that focus on different aspects of hacking, security, and the community.

For example, the Crypto & Privacy Village.

Photo: Cendyne

One of the many aspects of DEFCON is that you find yourself surrounded by people with deep expertise in many different areas (not just technological) who aren’t afraid to call you on any bullshit you spew. (Some of this fearlessness may be due to how much alcohol some people consume at the conference; I generally don’t drink alcohol, especially when fursuiting.)

Vikram Sharma’s Talk at the Quantum Village at DEFCON 30

The M.C. of the Quantum Village introduced Vikram by saying, “You should know who he is,” and saying that he’s deeply involved in policy discussions with government agencies. He was also described as a TED speaker.

I came to the talk intentionally unfamiliar with Vikram’s previous presentations, and with an open mind to the material he was going to share, so to avoid preconceived notions or unconscious bias as much as humanly possible.

The M.C.’s introduction primed me to expect a level of technical competence with cryptography and cryptanalysis on par with, or better than, a typical engineering manager that oversees cryptographers.

Vikram’s talk did not deliver on this built-up expectation.

Vikram Sharma’s Arguments

Vikram’s talk can be loosely distilled into a few important points:

  1. Cryptography-Relevant Quantum Computers are coming, and we don’t know when, but most experts believe within the next 30 years (at most).
  2. Although NIST has been working since 2015 on post-quantum cryptography, the advancements in cryptanalysis against Rainbow and SIKE highlight how nascent these algorithms are, and how brittle they may prove to be against mathematical advancements.
  3. In order to be ready to defend against Quantum Adversaries, we must adopt a mindset of “crypto agility” when engineering our applications.
  4. For enterprise customers, a Key Management Service that uses Quantum Key Distribution between endpoints in addition to post-quantum cryptography is likely necessary to hedge against advancements to post-quantum cryptanalysis.

The first two points are totally uncontroversial.

The third is interesting, and the fourth is a thinly-veiled sales pitch for Vikram’s company, QuintessenceLabs, rather than a serious technical argument.

Let’s explore the latter two points in more detail.

Art: LvJ

“Crypto Agility” From an Applied Cryptography Perspective

Protocols that utilize “crypto agility” are not new. SSL/TLS, SSH, and JWT all permit some degree of flexibility in the ciphersuite selection, rather than hard-coding the parameters.

For earlier versions of SSL/TLS, you could encrypt with RC4 with SHA1, and that was totally permitted. Stupid, but permitted. Nowadays, we use AES-GCM or ChaCha20-Poly1305 with TLS 1.3.

The story with SSH is similar, and there’s a lot of overlap in the user experience of configuring SSL/TLS for webservers and configuring OpenSSH. Even PGP supported different ciphers and modes. Crypto agility was the norm for many years.

JSON Web Tokens (JWT) is the perfect example of what happens when you take “crypto agility” too far:

  • An attacker can change the alg header’s value to none to allow for trivial existential forgery. This surprises users.
  • An attacker can take an existing token that uses an asymmetric mode (RS256, ES256, etc.), change the alg to a symmetric mode (i.e. HS256), then use the public key (or a hash of the public key) as a symmetric key, and the verifier would just blindly accept it.

When you maximize “crypto agility”, you introduce dangerous levels of in-band protocol negotiation.

Crypto Agility tends to become a security problem: When an attacker can entirely decide how the target system behaves, they can often bypass your security controls entirely.

Therefore, anyone who speaks in favor of crypto agility should be very careful about what, precisely, they’re advocating for.

Vikram’s talk wasn’t clear about these nuances. At the opening of the Q&A session, I asked the following question:

How do you balance your proposal for crypto agility with the risks of in-band protocol negotiation?

He declined to answer this question directly. Instead, he directed me to email his CTO, John Leiseboer, adding, “He would be better able to speak to that.”

Art: LvJ

So I returned to my DEFCON hotel room and sent an email to the email address that was displayed on Vikram’s slideshow.

Soatok’s First Email to QuintessenceLabs

This was mostly an attempt to be diplomatic so as to not scare them off from responding:


I attended your CEO’s talk at the Quantum Village at DEFCON 30. I was very interested in the subject, and Vikram’s delivery of the material was appropriate for the general audience. I did have one question, but he suggested that would be better answered by your CTO.

For a bit of background: I work in applied cryptography.

My question is, “How do you balance your proposal for crypto agility with the risks of in-band protocol negotiation?”

To add color to this question, consider the widely exploited standard, JSON Web Tokens. To change the cryptographic properties of a JWT, you only need to change the “alg” header. This is maximally agile.

Unfortunately, you can specify “none” as an algorithm. This surprises users:

Additionally, an attacker can take a token signed with an asymmetric key (e.g. RSA), change the alg header to HMAC, and then use [a hash of] the asymmetric public key as if it were a symmetric HMAC key, and achieve trivial existential forgery.

The same concerns, I feel, will crop up when migrating to a hybrid post-quantum design. Cross-protocol interactions of the incorrect secret keys would, from by understanding of Vikram’s talk, be made possible if an attacker can mutate the metadata table.

There is a way out of this mess: Versioned Protocols. Using JWT as an example, a contrary proposal that can support cipher agility but only for ciphers (and constructions of ciphers) that cryptographers have approved is called PASETO.

If a vulnerability in the current supported protocols (v3, v4) is discovered, the cryptographers behind PASETO will specify new modes (e.g. v5 and v6). Currently the only reason they’re considering any such migration is for hybrid post-quantum signatures (P384 + Dilithium, Ed25519 + Dilithium).

I think the general idea of crypto agility is the right direction for addressing the risk of cryptography relevant quantum computers, but I would caution against recreating the protocol foot-guns made possible by the wrong sort of agility.

Vikram suggested you would be able to speak more to how your designs take these threats into consideration. I’m very interested in this space and would love to learn more about how your designs work at a deeper level.

Thank you for your time,


(Typos included in original email)

I didn’t hear back from them for several days, so I hunted down the CTO’s email address directly (thanks, old mailing list discussions!).

He quickly responded with this:

John Leiseboer’s First Response Email

Hi Soatok,

My apologies for not responding sooner. I’ve been travelling and in meetings across three time zones. It’s been difficult to find time to absorb your questions and put together a response.

Please give me a few more days to find some time to get back to you.


I want to pause here and make something very clear: My actual question is the most basic and obvious question any credible security engineer that works with cryptography would ask in response to Vikram’s presentation.

Art: Swizz

If you were to claim, “Everyone should use crypto agility,” and don’t qualify that statement with nuance or context, then a follow-up question about the risks of crypto agility is inevitable.

If this question somehow doesn’t come up, you’re in the wrong room of the wrong security engineers when you rehearse your pitch.

Why, then, would the speaker not be prepared for such a question? Isn’t he routinely offering similar talks to policy experts for government agencies?

Why, also, would his company’s CTO not be able to readily answer the question without needing additional time to “absorb” this question and put together a response?

It’s not like I asked them to provide a machine-verifiable, formal proof of correctness for their proposals.

I only asked the most basic Cryptography Protocol Design 101 question in response to their assertion that “crypto agility” is something that “companies” should adopt.

The proof, the proof, the proof is invalid!

We don’t need no lemma–Proof by contradiction fail!

Fail, contradiction, fail!

With apologies to Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three

Was this company’s leadership blind-sided by the most basic question of the field of study they’re hoping to, at least in part, replace?

Did they fail to consider an attacker that alters the metadata associated with their encrypted data in order to convince the “agile” cryptosystems to misbehave?

I will update this post when I have an answer to these very interesting questions.

Against Quantum Key Distribution

While the response to my question about “crypto agility” was disappointing, their argument for Quantum Key Distribution is just weird.

Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) doesn’t scale well enough to protect consumers.

Suppose you’re accessing a brand new computer and want to login to your bank’s website to check your account balance. In this scenario, QKD is useless for you: You haven’t established a secure channel via quantum entanglement yet. You probably don’t even have the hardware or optic channel necessary to do so.

QuintessenceLabs doesn’t acknowledge this scaling issue explicitly in their Quantum Village slides. Instead, they pitch QKD as a solution for businesses (rather than users) that want to add a layer of quantum security to their Key Management Services (described vaguely as “interacting with HSMs”).

I’m not sure who exactly their intended audience is with this sales pitch: Are they trying to sell this to, or compete with, large cloud providers?

To their credit, they don’t entirely handwave post-quantum cryptography as a solution to cryptography relevant quantum computers. Instead, they claim that QKD is an “optional” way to protect communications when post-quantum cryptography is broken. Vikram comes short of describing these algorithmic breaks as “inevitable” in his presentation.

Here’s the rub: QKD isn’t magic.

Just as the correct response to, “What’s your threat model?” isn’t, “Well why don’t you try to disprove Heisenberg? Checkmate atheists!” the solution to quantum computing isn’t to throw all of discrete mathematics out with the bathwater in favor of relying only on quantum entanglement.

Even if you assume that the physical properties being leveraged to secure QKD cannot be directly defeated, you still have to deal with side-channel attacks. Et cetera.

That’s not to say that QKD research isn’t valuable or interesting. But I would strongly caution anyone who’s considering deploying it in production to talk to cryptographers and other security experts first.

We’re here to help!
Art: Harubaki

Burning Trust at DEFCON 30

DEFCON isn’t at all a vendor expo like Black Hat USA where you send sales drones to hock blinkenboxen that claim to secure networks.

DEFCON is where serious researchers and eccentric geeks exchange 0days for cocktails and solve interesting technical challenges.

My point is: If you present bullshit at DEFCON, you will be called out on it.

When I sat down at the Quantum Village to watch Vikram’s presentation, I honestly wanted it to not be bullshit.

After all, a lot of talented hackers lack refinement in public speaking, especially with talk abstracts. Conversely, a lot of business people (i.e. the CEO of a company) might be so accustomed to writing abstracts for a different audience, even if they ultimately deliver a hacker-focused talk in the end.

Therefore, in my mind, it’s possible that the content of the talk would be surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately, I left disappointed.

I can’t help but wonder if Vikram’s company being one of the four sponsors for the nascent Quantum Village prevented the necessary bullshit filter from being utilized to screen his talk.

He, and his employees, might rightfully claim to be experts on quantum technology, but they certainly don’t understand cryptography as well as they like to believe.

The thought of a sponsor bypassing the bullshit filter certainly makes me a little distrustful of the Quantum Village going into DEFCON 31.

Recommendation for DEFCON 31 and Beyond

The Quantum Village should reach out to the Crypto & Privacy Village to help review any talks that involve cryptography, moving forward.

This will help in two ways:

  1. Cryptography and privacy experts will be involved in the process.
  2. Someone who doesn’t have a perverse incentive will likely be involved in the process, which makes it easier to tell a sponsor, “Hell no.”

A particularly motivated bullshit artist with sufficient capital might simply sponsor both villages, so it’s not 100% foolproof, but you can always count on weirdos in fursuits like me to be the last line of defense, should all else fail.

Closing Thoughts

I was originally going to delay publishing this until QuintessenceLabs had a chance to respond to my question, or at least until all of the slide decks were published (so I could cite them carefully in my critique), but I honestly wanted to get my recommendation off my chest and in the hands of the Quantum Village organizers before I get distracted by the work that piled up while I was at DEFCON.

I might blog for free, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a job to do, or bills to pay.

If you (or someone you work for) was sold on “crypto agility”, consider versioned protocols instead. And if you’re going to invest in custom hardware, use Versioned Protocols instead and take a page out of Nintendo’s book: simply burn fuses with each new protocol version to prevent downgrade attacks.

This post first appeared on Dhole Moments - Software, Security, Cryptography, And The Furry Fandom, please read the originial post: here

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Burning Trust at the Quantum Village at DEFCON 30


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