September 15, 2007

Snake oil is snake oil?

An interesting debate emerged over on crypto list as to whether to chase down snake oil vendors and read them the good word until they beg for forgiveness. Then, a thing called IronKey stepped in as a exemplar or sinner or both:

On 12/09/07 08:56, Aram Perez wrote:
The IronKey appears to provide decent security while it is NOT plugged into a PC. But as soon as you plug it in and you have to enter a password to unlock it, the security level quickly drops. This would be the case even if they supported Mac OS or *nix.

So, is it snake oil? Here's my take. First, let's define terms:

I wrote:
So, is snake oil:
  • a crap product?
  • a fine product with weaknesses?
  • a marketing campaign that goes OTT?
  • a term used to slander the opposing security model?
  • an adjective that applies to any of the above?

To which Hagai responds:

Just like any term, it can have many interpretations. However, the most useful definition is the one that you can find at and which quite accurately reflects what the people who first brought this term into use used it for.

From which we find:

"used to describe commercial cryptographic methods and products which are considered bogus or fraudulent."

OK, so that means crap products, my first choice above, and indeed that might be the consensus of the commentators in the list. What distinguishes is that most people here seem to subscribe to the IronKey product as being ok, as a good product, but accept the exuberant marketing, and the potential weaknesses which are part and parcel of the product.

So, if a good product is clean, and the marketing is not, then the onus would apparently be on the commentators to (a) correctly distinguish good product from bad, and (b) describe this choice to the public.

My take: Good luck, guys.

It's not as if we have a good record here. Do we all remember the "snake oil signed certificates" which are now shown to be not snake oil, but *stronger* solutions than their counterpart, if used correctly? To stress this point, then, the wikipedia entry goes on to say:

Distinguishing secure cryptography from insecure cryptography can be difficult from the viewpoint of a user. Many cryptographers, such as Bruce Schneier and Phil Zimmermann, undertake to educate the public in how secure cryptography is done, as well as highlighting the misleading marketing of some cryptographic products.

The Snake Oil FAQ describes itself as, "a compilation of common habits of snake oil vendors. It cannot be the sole method of rating a security product, since there can be exceptions to most of these rules. [...] But if you're looking at something that exhibits several warning signs, you're probably dealing with snake oil."

So, it points out its own weaknesses in definition. In other words, to pick a good product, it's a crap shoot, and maybe you need a famous "name" to tell you what's good or not.

Ouch. To play the devil's advocate here, I'm not sure that the average public can see the difference between overly exuberant marketing and a crap product.

Hence, there appears to be some merit in complaining about unprofessional marketing. Extending the snake oil term to it might be justified; It might be that the only tool we have left is professional and ethical marketing of security products.

Also, there is the normal discordance between weaknesses and, well, other weaknesses:

  • IronKey doesn't protect when plugged in and decrypted. In that sense (threat model), neither does the SecureId token. The new threats are moving to the PC ... so we are definately in the area of comparing a partial, subvertible token to ... another partial, subvertible token.
  • military-grade security means what? A field-grade cipher which can be generally weak, or a national-security cipher which shouldn't be? Actually, it probably means the latter in common usage, but the term itself is just bad.
  • classical "snake-oil" (secret crypto, home-designs, one-time pads from PRNGs, etc) actually do provide reasonable coverage against today's other threat: having the laptop stolen, with or without the USB key. Almost all losses and thefts of this nature will be motivated by the hardware; what thief do you know who is going to muck around breaking kid-sister crypto?

What then can we conclude from all this? #1: If you are trying to apply a one-word claim to a complex product, then you are already lost. Snake oil may well itself be to sell snake oil.

Conclusion #2: the complexity would seem to indicate that any over-exuberant marketing is a bad thing. Perhaps they go hand in hand, so if you find yourself failing to understand the product being offered, then be skeptical.

And, also #3 reminded to us by Russ Nelson, who said:

"Remember, crypto without a threat model is like cookies without milk. ..... Cryptography without a threat model is like motherhood without apple pie. Can't say that enough times. More generally, security without a threat model is by definition going to fail."

I gather the first two comments are limited to the jurisdiction of the former colonies of King George III. The last however is spot on.

Posted by iang at September 15, 2007 04:03 AM | TrackBack


Thanks for your insightful comments.

We designed IronKey to be the most secure flash drive available. This involved hardware, firmware and software. We do want to hear ideas about next-generation data protection to protect files after the IronKey is unlocked. This treads into the realm of DRM, which we are interested in making easy and convenient.

We setup as a place for people to share their ideas, criticisms and thoughts about how we can improve the IronKey.

At IronKey we wrote threat models for all crypto components prior to designing the security technology. These design documents span data encryption, USB channel encryption, key management, and related areas.

On the marketing side, we have invested a lot of time and effort in developing the system. We recognize that the "public" cannot tell the difference between snake oil and the real thing. This is why we sent Beta devices to over 300 security professionals for evaluation, and why we are engaged in this forum and our own to discuss ideas and answer questions.

We hope that we've struck a decent balance between technical disclosure of threat models and technical architecture, and marketing materials to address both the sales and technology angles.

Thanks for reading,

Dave @ IronKey

Posted by: Dave_IronKey at September 15, 2007 10:15 PM
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