Cryptography Engineering

by Niels Ferguson, et al.

Cover image

Publisher: Wiley
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 0-470-47424-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 384

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Subtitled Design Principles and Practical Applications, Cryptography Engineering is intended as an overview and introduction to cryptography for the non-expert. It doesn't dive deeply into the math, although there is still a fairly thorough mathematical introduction to public-key cryptography. Instead, it focuses on the principles, tools, and algorithms that are the most concretely useful to a practitioner who is trying to design secure systems rather than doing theoretical cryptography.

The "et al." in the author summary hides Bruce Schneier and Tadayoshi Kohno, and this book is officially the second edition of Practical Cryptography by Ferguson and Schneier. Schneier's name will be familiar from, among other things, Applied Cryptography, and I'll have more to say later about which of the two books one should read (and the merits of reading both). But one of the immediately-apparent advantages of Cryptography Engineering is that it's recent. Its 2010 publication date means that it recommends AES as a block cipher, discusses MD5 weaknesses, and can discuss and recommend SHA-2. For the reader whose concern with cryptography is primarily "what should I use now for new work," this has huge benefit.

"What should I use for new work" is the primary focus of this book. There is some survey of the field, but that survey is very limited compared to Applied Cryptography and is tightly focused on the algorithms and approaches that one might reasonably propose today. Cryptography Engineering also attempts to provide general principles and simplifying assumptions to steer readers away from trouble. One example, and the guiding principle for much of the book, is that any new system needs at least a 128-bit security level, meaning that any attack will require 2128 steps. This requirement may be overkill in some edge cases, as the authors point out, but when one is not a cryptography expert, accepting lower security by arguments that sound plausible but may not be sound is very risky.

Cryptography Engineering starts with an overview of cryptography, the basic tools of cryptographic analysis, and the issues around designing secure systems and protocols. I like that the authors not only make it clear that security programming is hard but provide a wealth of practical examples of different attack methods and failure modes, a theme they continue throughout the book. From there, the book moves into a general discussion of major cryptographic areas: encryption, authentication, public-key cryptography, digital signatures, PKI, and issues of performance and complexity.

Part two starts the in-depth discussion with chapters on block ciphers, block cipher modes, hash functions, and MACs, which together form part two (message security). The block cipher mode discussion is particularly good and includes algorithms newer than those in Applied Cryptography. This part closes with a walkthrough of constructing a secure channel, in pseudocode, and a chapter on implementation issues. The implementation chapters throughout the book are necessarily more general, but for me they were one of the most useful parts of the book, since they take a step back from the algorithms and look at the perils and pitfalls of using them to do real work.

The third part of the book is on key negotiation and encompasses random numbers, prime numbers, Diffie-Hellman, RSA, a high-level look at cryptographic protocols, and a detailed look at key negotiation. This will probably be the hardest part of the book for a lot of readers, since the introduction to public-key is very heavy on math. The authors feel that's unavoidable to gain any understanding of the security risks and attack methods against public-key. I'm not quite convinced. But it's useful information, if heavy going that requires some devoted attention.

I want to particularly call out the chapter on random numbers, though. This is an often-overlooked area in cryptography, particularly in introductions for the non-expert, and this is the best discussion of pseudo-random number generators I've ever seen. The authors walk through the design of Fortuna as an illustration of the issues and how they can be avoided. I came away with a far better understanding of practical PRNG design than I've ever had (and more sympathy for the annoying OpenSSL ~/.rnd file).

The last substantial part of the book is on key management, starting with a discussion of time and its importance in cryptographic protocols. From there, there's a discussion of central trusted key servers and then a much more comprehensive discussion of PKI, including the problems with revocation, key lifetime, key formats, and keeping keys secure. The concluding chapter of this part is a very useful discussion of key storage, which is broad enough to encompass passwords, biometrics, and secure tokens. This is followed by a short part discussing standards, patents, and experts.

A comparison between this book and Applied Cryptography reveals less attention to the details of cryptographic algorithms (apart from random number generators, where Cryptography Engineering provides considerably more useful information), wide-ranging surveys of algorithms, and underlying mathematics. Cryptography Engineering also makes several interesting narrowing choices, such as skipping stream ciphers almost entirely. Less surprisingly, this book covers only a tiny handful of cryptographic protocols; there's nothing here about zero-knowledge proofs, blind signatures, bit commitment, or even secret sharing, except a few passing mentions. That's realistic: those protocols are often extremely difficult to understand, and the typical security system doesn't use them.

Replacing those topics is considerably more discussion of implementation techniques and pitfalls, including more assistance from the authors on how to choose good cryptographic building blocks and how to combine them into useful systems. This is a difficult topic, as they frequently acknowledge, and a lot of the advice is necessarily fuzzy, but they at least provide an orientation. To get much out of Applied Cryptography, you needed a basic understanding of what cryptography can do and how you want to use it. Cryptography Engineering tries to fill in that gap to the point where any experienced programmer should be able to see what problems cryptography can solve (and which it can't).

That brings me back to the question of which book you should read, and a clear answer: start here, with Cryptography Engineering. It's more recent, which means that the algorithms it discusses are more directly applicable to day-to-day work. The block cipher mode and random number generator chapters are particularly useful, even if, for the latter, one will probably use a standard library. And it takes more firm stands, rather than just surveying. This comes with the risk of general principles that aren't correct in specific situations, but I think for most readers the additional guidance is vital.

That said, I'm still glad I read Applied Cryptography, and I think I would still recommend reading it after this book. The detailed analysis of DES in Applied Cryptography is worth the book by itself, and more generally the survey of algorithms is useful in showing the range of approaches that can be used. And the survey of cryptographic protocols, if very difficult reading, provides tools for implementing (or at least understanding) some of the fancier and more cutting-edge things that one can do with cryptography.

But this is the place to start, and I wholeheartedly recommend Cryptography Engineering to anyone working in computer security. Whether you're writing code, designing systems, or even evaluating products, this is a very useful book to read. It's a comprehensive introduction if you don't know anything about the field, but deep enough that I still got quite a bit of new information from it despite having written security software for years and having already read Applied Cryptography. Highly recommended. I will probably read it from cover to cover a second time when I have some free moments.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-04-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21