FBI Accused of Planting OpenBSD Backdoors 10 Years Ago

A former contractor accused the FBI of planting backdoors and side-channel key leaking mechanisms into the OpenBSD Cryptographic Framework 10 years ago.

An e-mail touched off a bit of a firestorm when a former government contractor alleged the FBI put backdoors and side-channel key leak mechanisms in the OpenBSD Cryptographic Framework some 10 years ago.

The e-mail, which was posted online here by OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt, came from Gregory Perry, who is now CEO of GoVirtual Education.

"If you will recall, a while back I was the CTO at NETSEC and arranged funding and donations for the OpenBSD Crypto Framework," Perry wrote in the Dec. 11 e-mail to de Raadt. "At that same time I also did some consulting for the FBI, for their GSA Technical Support Center, which was a cryptologic reverse engineering project aimed at backdooring and implementing key escrow mechanisms for smart card and other hardware-based computing technologies."

Stating that his non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the FBI had ended, he told de Raadt the law enforcement agency had "implemented a number of backdoors and side channel key leaking mechanisms into the OCF, for the express purpose of monitoring the site to site VPN encryption system implemented by EOUSA, the parent organization to the FBI."

In an e-mail to eWEEK today, Perry wrote that the OCF was a "target for side channel key leaking mechanisms, as well as pf (the stateful inspection packet filter), in addition to the gigabit Ethernet driver stack for the OpenBSD operating system; all of those projects NETSEC donated engineers and equipment for, including the first revision of the OCF hardware acceleration framework based on the HiFN line of crypto accelerators."

"The project involved," he continued, "was the GSA Technical Support Center, a circa 1999 joint research and development project between the FBI and the NSA [National Security Agency]... We were tasked with proposing various methods used to reverse engineer smart card technologies, including Piranha techniques for stripping organic materials from smart cards and other embedded systems used for key material storage, so that the gates could be analyzed with Scanning Electron and Scanning Tunneling Microscopy. We also developed proposals for distributed brute force key cracking systems used for DES/3DES cryptanalysis, in addition to other methods for side channel leaking and covert backdoors in firmware-based systems."

Perry wrote that he left NETSEC in 2000 to start another venture and "had some fairly significant concerns with many aspects of these projects." He added that he was the lead architect for "the site-to-site VPN project developed for Executive Office for United States Attorneys, which was a statically keyed VPN system used at 235+ US Attorney locations and which later proved to have been backdoored by the FBI so that they could recover (potentially) grand jury information from various US Attorney sites across the United States and abroad."

"After I left NETSEC, I ended up becoming the recipient of a FISA-sanctioned investigation, presumably so that I would not talk about those various projects; my NDA recently expired so I am free to talk about whatever," he wrote.

In announcing the e-mail, de Raadt noted that since the first IPSEC stack was available for free, large parts of the code can be found in many projects and products.

"Over 10 years, the IPSEC code has gone through many changes and fixes, so it is unclear what the true impact of these allegations are," he wrote.

So far, there is mixed opinion about Perry's accusations.

"Governments around the world would want this type of access due to the realities of economic espionage and traditional espionage evolving into cyberspace," said Tom Kellermann, vice president of security awareness at Core Security. "The Chinese have been utilizing this form of tradecraft for years."

Still, Andrew Hay, an analyst with The 451 Group, said the ability to slip something malicious into the OpenBSD code is possible but unlikely due to the possible political and social ramifications of the backdoor being discovered.

"As for those people leveraging the OCF in their own software I suspect that it would be quite difficult for them to audit the code for anomalies," he said. "Software engineers typically rely on the scrutiny provided by the Open Source community (not to mention the project handlers) to audit the shared libraries and code prior to its release. Unless the end-application owners have detailed knowledge of what to look for, or guidance from the OpenBSD team, these anomalies will likely be as difficult to detect as looking for a particular needle in a stack of needles."