In the weeks leading up to re:Inforce, we’ll share conversations we’ve had with people at AWS who will be presenting at the event so you can learn more about them and some of the interesting work that they’re doing.
How long have you been at AWS, and what do you do in your current role?
I’ve been with AWS for almost 6 years. I joined as a Principal Security Engineer, but my focus has always been cryptography. I’m a cryptographer. At the start of my Amazon career, I worked on designing our AWS Key Management Service (KMS). Since then, I’ve gotten involved in other projects—working alongside a group of volunteers in the AWS Cryptography Bar Raisers group.
Today, the Crypto Bar Raisers are a dedicated portion of my team that work with any AWS team who’s designed a novel application of cryptography. The underlying cryptographic mechanisms aren’t novel, but the engineer has figured out how to apply them in a non-standard way, often to solve a specific problem for a customer. We provide these AWS employees with a deep analysis of their applications to ensure that the applications meet our high cryptographic security bar.
How do you explain your job to non-tech friends?
I usually tell people that I’m a mathematician. Sometimes I’ll explain that I’m a cryptographer. If anyone wants detail beyond that, I say I design security protocols or application uses of cryptography.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
I’m convinced the most challenging part of any job is managing email.
Apart from that, within AWS there’s lots of demand for making sure we’re doing security right. The people who want us to review their projects come to us via many channels. They might already be aware of the Crypto Bar Raisers, and they want our advice. Or, one of our internal AWS teams—often, one of the teams who perform security reviews of our services—will alert the project owner that they’ve deviated from the normal crypto engineering path, and the team will wind up working with us. Our requests tend to come from smart, enthusiastic engineers who are trying to deliver customer value as fast as possible. Our ability to attract smart, enthusiastic engineers has served us quite well as a company. Our engineering strength lies in our ability to rapidly design, develop, and deploy features for our customers.
The challenge of this approach is that it’s not the fastest way to achieve a secure system. That is, you might end up designing things before you can demonstrate that they’re secure. Cryptographers design in the opposite way: We consider “ability to demonstrate security” in advance, as a design consideration. This approach can seem unusual to a team that has already designed something—they’re eager to build the thing and get it out the door. There’s a healthy tension between the need to deliver the right level of security and the need to deliver solutions as quickly as possible. It can make our day-to-day work challenging, but the end result tends to be better for customers.
Amazon’s s2n implementation of the Transport Layer Security protocol was a pretty big deal when it was announced in 2015. Can you summarize why it was a big deal, and how you were involved?
It was a big deal, and it was a big decision for AWS to take ownership of the TLS libraries that we use. The decision was predicated on the belief we could do a better job than other open source TLS packages by providing a smaller, simpler—and inherently more secure—version of TLS that would raise the security bar for us and for our customers.
To do this, the Automated Reasoning Group demonstrated the formal correctness of the code to meet the TLS specification. For the most part, my involvement in the initial release was limited to scenarios where the Amazon contributors did their own cryptographic implementations within TLS (that is, within the existing s2n library), which was essentially like any other Crypto Bar Raiser review for me.
Currently, my team and I are working on additional developments to s2n—we’re deploying something called “quantum-safe cryptography” into it.
You’re leading a session at re:Inforce that provides “an introduction to post-quantum cryptography.” How do you explain post-quantum cryptography to a beginner?
Post-quantum cryptography, or quantum-safe cryptography, refers to cryptographic techniques that remain secure even against the power of a large-scale quantum computer.
A quantum computer would be fundamentally different than the computers we use today. Today, we build computers based off of certain mathematical assumptions—that certain cryptographic ciphers cannot be cracked without an immense, almost impossible amount of computing power. In particular, a basic assumption that cryptographers build upon today is that the discreet log problem, or integer factorization, is hard. We take it for granted that this type of problem is fundamentally difficult to solve. It’s not a task that can be completed quickly or easily.
Well, it turns out that if you had the computing power of a large-scale quantum computer, those assumptions would be incorrect. If you could figure out how to build a quantum computer, it could unravel the security aspects of the TLS sessions we create today, which are built upon those assumptions.
The reason that we take this “if” so seriously is that, as a company, we have data that we know we want to keep secure. The probability of such a quantum computer coming into existence continues to rise. Eventually, the probability that a quantum computer exists during the lifetime of the sensitivity of the data we are protecting will rise above the risk threshold that we’re willing to accept.
It can take 10 to 15 years for the cryptographic community to study new algorithms well enough to have faith in the core assumptions about how they work. Additionally, it takes time to establish new standards and build high quality and certified implementations of these algorithms, so we’re investing now.
I research post-quantum cryptographic techniques, which means that I’m basically looking for quantum-safe techniques that can be designed to run on the classical computers that we use now. Identifying these techniques lets us implement quantum-safe security well in advance of a quantum computer. We’ll remain secure even if someone figures out how to create one.
We aren’t doing this alone. We’re working within in the larger cryptographic community and participating in the NIST Post-Quantum Cryptography Standardization process.
What do you hope that people will do differently as a result of attending your re:Inforce session?
First, I hope people download and use s2n in any form. S2n is a nice, simple Transport Layer Socket (TLS) implementation that reduces overall risk for people who are currently using TLS.
In addition, I’d encourage engineers to try the post-quantum version of s2n and see how their applications work with it. Post-quantum cryptographic schemes are different. They have a slightly different “shape,” or usage. They either take up more bandwidth, which will change your application’s latency and bandwidth use, or they require more computational power, which will affect battery life and latency.
It’s good to understand how this increase in bandwidth, latency, and power consumption will impact your application and your user experience. This lets you make proactive choices, like reducing the frequency of full TLS handshakes that your application has to complete, or whatever the equivalent would be for the security protocol that you’re currently using.
What implications do post-quantum s2n developments have for the field of cloud security as a whole?
My team is working in the public domain as much as possible. We want to raise the cryptography bar not just for AWS, but for everyone. In addition to the post-quantum extension to s2n that we’re writing, we’re writing specifications. This means that any interested party can inspect and analyze precisely how we’re doing things. If they want to understand nuances of TLS 1.2 or 1.3, they can look at those specifications, and see how these post-quantum extensions apply to those standards.
We hope that documenting our work in the public space, where others can build interoperable systems, will raise the bar for all cloud providers, so that everyone is building upon a more secure foundation.
What resources would you recommend to someone interested in learning more about s2n or post-quantum cryptography?
For s2n, we do a lot of our communication through Security Blog posts. There’s also the AWS GitHub repository, which houses our source code. It’s available to anyone who wants to look at it, use it, or become a contributor. Any issues that arise are captured in issue pages there.
For quantum-safe crypto, a fairly influential paper was released in 2015. It’s the European Telecommunications Standards Institute’s Quantum-Safe Whitepaper (PDF file). It provides a gentle introduction to quantum computing and the impact it has on information systems that we’re using today to secure our information. It sets forth all of the reasons we need to invest now. It helped spur a shift in thinking about post-quantum encryption, from “research project” to “business need.”
There are certainly resources that allow you to go a lot deeper. There’s a highly technical conference called PQ Crypto that’s geared toward cryptographers and focuses on post-quantum crypto. For resources ranging from executive to developer level, there’s a quantum-safe cryptography workshop organized every year by the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo (IQC) and the European Telecommuncations Standards Institute (ETSI). AWS is partnering with ETSI/IQC to host the 2019 workshop in Seattle.
What’s one fact about cryptography that you think everyone—even laypeople—should be aware of?
People sometimes speak about cryptography like it’s a fact or a mathematical science. And it’s not, precisely. Cryptography doesn’t guarantee outcomes. It deals with probabilities based upon core assumptions. Cryptographic engineering requires you to understand what those assumptions are and closely monitor any challenges to them.
In the business world, if you want to keep something secret or confidential, you need to be able to express the probability that the cryptographic method fails to provide the desired security property. Understanding this probability is how businesses evaluate risk when they’re building out a new capability. Cryptography can enable new capabilities that might otherwise represent too high a risk. For instance, public-key cryptography and certificate authorities enabled the development of the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol, and this unlocked e-Commerce, making it possible for companies to authenticate to end users, and for end users to engage in a confidential session to conduct business transactions with very little risk. So at the end of the day, I think of cryptography as essentially a tool to reduce the risk of creating new capabilities, especially for business.
Don’t think of cryptography as a guarantee. Think about it as a probability that’s tied to how often you use the cryptographic method.
You have confidentiality if you use the system based on an assumption that you can understand, like “this cryptographic primitive (or block cipher) is a pseudo-random permutation.” Then, if you encrypt 232 messages, the probability that all your data stays secure (confidential or authentic) is, let’s say, 2-72. Those numbers are where people’s eyes may start to gloss over when they hear them, but most engineers can process that information if it’s written down. And people should be expecting that from their solutions.
Once you express it like that, I think it’s clear why we want to move to quantum-safe crypto. The probabilities we tolerate for cryptographic security are very small, typically smaller than 2-32, around the order of one in four billion. We’re not willing to take much risk, and we don’t typically have to from our cryptographic constructions.
That’s especially true for a company like Amazon. We process billions of objects a day. Even if there’s a one in the 232 chance that some information is going to spill over, we can’t tolerate such a probability.
Most of cryptography wasn’t built with the cloud in mind. We’re seeing that type of cryptography develop now—for example, cryptographic computing models where you encrypt the data before you store it in the cloud, and you maintain the ability to do some computation on its encrypted form, and the plaintext never exists within the cloud provider’s systems. We’re also seeing core crypto primitives, like the Advanced Encryption Standard, which wasn’t designed for the cloud, begin to show some age. The massive use cases and sheer volume of things that we’re encrypting require us to develop new techniques, like the derived-key mode of AES-GCM that we use in AWS KMS.
What does cloud security mean to you, personally?
I’ll give you a roundabout answer. Before I joined Amazon, I’d been working on quantum-safe cryptography, and I’d been thinking about how to securely distribute an alternative cryptographic solution to the community. I was focused on whether this could be done by tying distribution into a user’s identity provider.
Now, we all have a trust relationship with some entity. For example, you have a trust relationship between yourself and your mobile phone company that creates a private, encrypted tunnel between the phone and your local carrier. You have a similar relationship with your cable or internet provider—a private connection between the modem and the internet provider.
When I looked around and asked myself who’d make a good identity provider, I found a lot of entities with conflicting interests. I saw few companies positioned to really deliver on the promise of next-generation cryptographic solutions, but Amazon was one of them, and that’s why I came to Amazon.
I don’t think I will provide the ultimate identity provider to the world. Instead, I’ve stayed to focus on providing Amazon customers the security they need, and I’m thrilled to be here because of the sheer volume of great cryptographic engineering problems that I get to see on a regular basis. More and more people have their data in a cloud. I have data in the cloud. I’m very motivated to continue my work in an environment where the security and privacy of customer data is taken so seriously.
You live in the Seattle area: When friends from out of town visit, what hidden gem do you take them to?
When friends visit, I bring them to the Amazon Spheres, which are really neat, and the MoPOP museum. For younger people, children, I take them on the Seattle Underground Tour. It has a little bit of a Harry Potter-like feel. Otherwise, the great outdoors! We spend a lot of time outside, hiking or biking.
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