US-Canadian group suspends certification for open-source app

A joint U.S. and Canadian organization that certifies encryptiontools for use by federal government agencies has suspended itsvalidation of OpenSSL cryptographic technology for the second timein less than six months.

The decision means that government agencies cannot purchase theopen-source tool for the time being, although those that havealready done so will still be allowed to use it. OpenSSL is anopen-source implementation of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) andTransport Layer security protocols.

It is widely used to encrypt and decrypt data on theInternet.

The decision to suspend validation of the tool came just twodays after the group doing the validation, Cryptographic ModuleValidation Program (CMVP), had taken the harsher step of revokingthe tool entirely. It backed away from that decision and opted fora suspension of the process instead.

News of the rapid changes to the validation effort drewcriticism from the Hattiesburg, Miss.-based Open Source SoftwareInstitute (OSSI), a non-profit group trying to get the OpenSSLencryption module validated for use in government. John Weathersby,OSSI’s executive director, Wednesday alleged that the move appearsto have been influenced by vendors of proprietary technologies whostand to lose a lucrative market if an open source alternative iscertified.

“There are some vendors fighting like hell to make this die, andI can see why,” said Weathersby. “What’s going on is the questionof the day. This is not a technology issue, this is a politicalissue.”

OpenSSL is supported on several major platforms, including manyflavors of Unix, Apple Computer Inc.’s Mac OS X and Microsoft’sWindows.

OpenSSL received its precedent-setting validation in Januaryfrom the CMVP, which is charged with validating and certifying thatcryptographic tools sold to government agencies meet therequirements of the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS)publication 140-2. The CMVP was established by the U.S. NationalInstitute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the CommunicationsSecurity Establishment of the Canadian government.

A validated OpenSSL tool would allow OS vendors, Web browsermakers and vendors of other software products such as e-mail toinclude a free FIPS-140 compliant cryptographic module. The OpenSSLFIPS 140-2 validation effort is sponsored by the Defense MedicalLogistics Standard Support (DMLSS) program, which provides medicallogistics support to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Currently, agencies looking for encryption capabilities spendhundreds of thousands of dollars — and in some cases, millions ofdollars — licensing proprietary crypto tools that are FIPS 140certified.

Since January, however, the validation for Open SSL has beenrevoked and reinstated twice, Weathersby said. The first revocationhappened in January, barely four days after OpenSSL was firstvalidated by CMVP. It was awarded a FIPS 140-2 validation again inMarch after some changes were made to the module.

On Friday, OSSI was told that the validation had again beenrevoked, Weathersby said. That changed yesterday, when theorganization learned that the OpenSSL certificate had beenincorrectly “revoked” and is now instead “not available.” Thatmeans that the OpenSSL cryptographic module can no longer be boughtby government agencies, although it can be used by those thatalready have it.

“However, if non-compliance is discovered in a module after ithas been validated, and based on a risk assessment it is deemed tobe critical, the CMVP will advise all federal agencies to ceaseusing the affected module,” NIST said.

A representative from DOMUS IT Security Laboratory, the OttawaCanada-based company that is evaluating products for FIPS 140compliance, referred all questions to the CMVP.

The continuing uncertainly about the status of OpenSSL is sureto prolong what has been a multi-year effort to certify the tool.Much of the delay resulted from a continuing series of tweaks OSSIwas required to make to the cryptographic module at the request ofthe CMVP, said Steve Marquess, validation project manager atOSSI.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the FIPSrequirements were written for hardware-based encryption tools whileOpenSSL is software-based. As a result, mapping FIPS’ requirementsto OpenSSL has proved challenging, Marquess said.

Vendors of commercial products have also raised a constantstream of technology-related questions that have proved timeconsuming to addressthis,” Marquess said. “One of them has beenworking for several years to challenge multiple aspects of what weare trying to do,” he said without naming the vendor.

One of the results is that the requirements for OpenSSL to getFIPS 140-2 validation has keeps changing he said. “One of ourfrustrations through this whole ordeal is pinning down therequirements in concrete technical terms,” he said. “Therequirements keep changing on us all the time.”

George Adams, the president and CEO of SSH CommunicationSecurity, a Wellesley, Mass.-based vendor of encryption products,said that concerns about the use of OpenSSL in governmentenvironments are valid. As an open-source tool, OpenSSL is subjectto constant changes that would invalidate its certification on aregular basis, he said.

For instance, any changes made to the source or linked libraryin the cryptographic module will create a non-validated module, hesaid. Similarly, any additional cryptography outside of thevalidated module would need to be tested and validated.

Marquess dismissed such concerns. He said that the securitypolicy associated with OpenSSL guarantees that the source code usedto generate the cryptographic module is unmodified at alltimes.

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