Policing in the metaverse

The metaverse(s), whatever it will be, may be essential to our near digital future.  It is sometimes referred to as the next iteration of the Internet.  As Web 2.0 has many security issues, without a doubt, we can forecast that the Web 3.0/metaverse(s) will have as many, and most probably more, risks.  Thus, it is interesting to analyze some potential threats even if the metaverse(s) is not yet here.

Europol (The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation) is the law enforcement agency of the European Union.  Therefore, Europol is knowledgeable about crime.  Their innovation laboratory published an interesting report: “Policing in the metaverse.”

The report does not define precisely what metaverse is.  It gives a relatively good idea of what it may be.  It does not only tackle the visible part of the metaverse (AR, VR, XR).  It also describes the foreseen underlying infrastructure with decentralized networks and blockchains.

The report explores seven topics related to crime in the metaverse

  1. Identity:  A large focus is put on the collection and reuse of additional biometric information.

With more advanced ways to interact with the system by using different sensors, eye tracking, face tracking and haptics for instance, there will be far more detailed biometric information about individual users.  That information will allow criminals to even more convincingly impersonate and steal someone’s identity.  Moreover, this information may be used to manipulate users in a far more nuanced, but far more effective way than is possible at present on the Internet

It will become difficult to trust the identity or the avatars.  Impersonation of virtual personas will be an interesting threat.

The more detailed that data becomes and the more closely that avatar resembles and represents the actual user, the more this becomes a question of who owns the user’s identity, the biometric and spatial information that the user provides to the system.

The more detailed that data becomes and the more closely that avatar resembles and represents the actual user, the more this becomes a question of who owns the user’s identity, the biometric and spatial information that the user provides to the system.

  1. Financial money laundering, scams:  the current state of cryptocurrencies and NFTs paints a scary picture of the future. 
  2. Harassment
  3. Terrorism:  Europol foresees that terrorist organizations will use it as recruiting services and a training playground.
  4. Mis- and disinformation
  5. Feasibility of monitoring and logging evidence:  This will be a challenging task.
  6. Impact in the physical world.  This will be an extraordinary playground for attackers.  Device manufacturers will have to put countermeasures from the start.

An immersive XR experience provides an opportunity to influence a user in the physical world through the manipulation of the virtual environment.  Users can be tricked into hitting objects and walls, or being moved to another physical location, through what is called a ‘Human Joystick Attack’.  A perhaps simpler way is to alter the boundaries of a user’s virtual world through a ‘Chaperone Attack’.  A third attack type is the ‘Overlay Attack’, in which the attacker takes complete control over the user’s virtual environment and provides their own overlay – the input which defines what users see and perceive in a virtual environment.

The report highlighted the need of moderation.  It explained that the challenge will be larger than the current one for Web 2.0

It will not just be a matter of moderating vastly more content, but also of behaviour, which is both ephemeral in nature and even more context-dependent than the content we are currently used to

This report is a must-read for anyone interested in security for Web 3.0 and the metaverse(s).  It is not technical and provides a long list of worrying issues.  The mere fact that Europol publishes on the topic is already a good indicator that this matter will be critical in the future.

IS RSA2048 broken?

Recently, an academic paper from a large team of Chinese researchers made the headlines of the specialized press [1].  Reporters claimed that “small” quantum computers may break RSA2048.  Breaking RSA2048 may need only 372 qubits.  Qubits are similar to bits in the quantum domain.  IBM already proposes Osprey: a 433-qubit chip.  So, is RSA2048 dead?

The security of RSA relies on the assumption that factorizing the product of two large prime numbers is extremely difficult.  It is assumed currently that conventional computers cannot solve this problem.  Recent studies showed that, in theory, quantum computers may succeed.

The paper is not for the faint heart.  Its summary is as follows:

Shor’s algorithm has seriously challenged information security based on public key cryptosystems.  However, to break the widely used RSA-2048 scheme, one needs millions of physical qubits, which is far beyond current technical capabilities.  Here, we report a universal quantum algorithm for integer factorization by combining the classical lattice reduction with a quantum approximate optimization algorithm (QAOA).  The number of qubits required is O(logN/loglog N), which is sublinear in the bit length of the integer $N$, making it the most qubit-saving factorization algorithm to date.  We demonstrate the algorithm experimentally by factoring integers up to 48 bits with 10 superconducting qubits, the largest integer factored on a quantum device.  We estimate that a quantum circuit with 372 physical qubits and a depth of thousands is necessary to challenge RSA-2048 using our algorithm.  Our study shows great promise in expediting the application of current noisy quantum computers, and paves the way to factor large integers of realistic cryptographic significance.

As mentioned, RSA’s security assumes it is tough to factorize the product of two very large prime numbers.  The researchers use Schnorr’s algorithm [2] to factor these large numbers rather than the Schor one.  On the one hand, the Schor algorithm requires millions of qubits, but it is a theoretically proven solution.  Unfortunately, it is out of the current feasibility realm.  On the other hand, Schnorr’s algorithm seems not yet to be a proven solution at a large scale.  The expected speed-up using quantum computing is highly controversial and not demonstrated.  The paper stays in the realm of unproven expectations.

The consensus seems to be that the threat is not yet here.  Following is a list of posts of people who know far better than me:

  • [3] highlights one crucial point (present in all papers): It should be pointed out that the quantum speed-up of the algorithm is unclear due to the ambiguous convergence of QAOA.  In other words, the paper does not demonstrate that it is faster than Schor’s.  Scott is a quantum computing expert.
  • [4] highlights that the paper never claims to be faster.  It omits “running time”; what is merely claimed is that the quantum circuit is very small.
  • [5] Bruce Schneier reminds that Schnorr’s paper works well for small moduli, but does not scale well for larger prime numbers.
  • [6] highlights that the quantum computer should have a 99.999% fidelity.  This would require a NISQ computer with gate level fidelities of 99.999%.  That level is more than two orders of magnitude better than the best machines we have today. 


Keep calm.  RSA 2048 is still safe for many years.  Nevertheless, it is key to be aware of the latest progress of post-quantum cryptography.  Do we have to switch to post-quantum cryptography?  Not right now, especially if you do not handle secrets that have to last for many decades.


[1]          B. Yan et al., “Factoring integers with sublinear resources on a superconducting quantum processor.” arXiv, Dec. 23, 2022.   Available: http://arxiv.org/abs/2212.12372

[2]          C. P. Schnorr, “Fast Factoring Integers by SVP Algorithms, corrected.” 2021.  Available: https://eprint.iacr.org/2021/933

[3]          S. Aaronson, “Cargo Cult Quantum Factoring,” Shtetl-Optimized, Jan. 04, 2023.  https://scottaaronson.blog/?p=6957

[4]          “Paper claims to break RSA-2048 with only 372 physical quibits.” https://groups.google.com/a/list.nist.gov/g/pqc-forum/c/AkfdRQS4yoY/m/3plDftUEAgAJ .

[5]          “Breaking RSA with a Quantum Computer – Schneier on Security.” https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2023/01/breaking-rsa-with-a-quantum-computer.html

[6]          dougfinke, “Quantum Experts Debunk China Quantum Factoring Claims,” Quantum Computing Report, Jan. 06, 2023.  https://quantumcomputingreport.com/quantum-experts-debunk-china-quantum-factoring-claims

NIST selected the post-quantum cryptosystems

Post-quantum cryptography encompasses the algorithms that are allegedly immune to quantum computing.  In 2017, NIST initiated the process of selecting and standardizing a set of post-quantum cryptosystems. In 2020, NIST started the third round with 15 remaining candidates.

NIST announced the four winners.  CRYSTALS-KYBER is the new key establishment protocol for post-quantum. 

“Among its advantages are comparatively small encryption keys that two parties can exchange easily, as well as its speed of operation. ”

CRYSTALS-DILITHIUM, Falcon, and SPHINCS+ are the new digital signature systems.

“ Reviewers noted the high efficiency of the first two, and NIST recommends CRYSTALS-Dilithium as the primary algorithm, with FALCON for applications that need smaller signatures than Dilithium can provide. The third, SPHINCS+, is somewhat larger and slower than the other two, but it is valuable as a backup for one chief reason: It is based on a different math approach than all three of NIST’s other selections.”

Interestingly, version 9.0 of OpenSSH proposes a post-quantum algorithm.  It is NTRU prime and not CRYSTALS-KYBER.

OpenSSH prepares post-quantum

For several years, cryptography has studied the implication of the rise of quantum computation.  Once fully operational, with enough qubits, error-free, and keeping quantum states long enough, quantum computing will break prime number factor-based cryptosystems (such as RSA) and Elliptic Curve Cryptography by quickly finding the private keys.

Thus, in 2017, NIST initiated selecting and standardizing a set of post-quantum cryptosystems.

OpenSSH just released version 9.0.  And it adds the support of a post-quantum cryptosystem.  To be precise:


use the hybrid Streamlined NTRU Prime + x25519 key exchange method by default (“sntrup761x25519-sha512@openssh.com”). The NTRU algorithm is believed to resist attacks enabled by future quantum computers and is paired with the X25519 ECDH key exchange (the previous default) as a backstop against any weaknesses in NTRU Prime that may be discovered in the future.  The combination ensures that the hybrid exchange offers at least as good security as the status quo.

NTRU Prime is one of the nine remaining candidates in the NIST selection process.   OpenSSH chose one without waiting for the NIST final selection. 

Intel SGX™ is dead

Intel announced that the next generations of CPUs (11th and 12th) will no longer support the SGX technology (see data sheet).  SGX is the secure enclave in Intel CPU.   The SGX isolates the program and data in its environment from the insecure Rich Execution Environment (REE).  Thus SGX-based applications could act as a Root of Trust.

At least, this was the promise.  Unfortunately, starting with Spectre-like attacks, SGX was under the fire of many interesting exploits (for instance, VoltPillager).  Thus, it seems that in its current form, SGX cannot be a trusted secure enclave.

For most consumers, the main consequence is that future PCs will not support any more UHD Blu-ray.  Indeed, the content protection standard AACS2 mandates a Secure Execution Environment with a Hardware Root of Trust (HRoT).  For Microsoft Windows, the solution was the use of SGX.  Some applications were also basing their security model on SGX.  They will have to find an alternative that is not necessarily available.  TPM offers a valid HRoT but not a Secure Execution Environment.  Current tamper-resistant software and obfuscation technologies may not be sufficient.

Breaching the Samsung S9 Keystore

Most Android devices implement an Android Hardware-backed Keystore.  The Rich Execution Environment (REE) applications, i.e., the unsecure ones, use a hardware root of trust and an application in the Trusted Execution Environment (TEE).  Usually, as all the cryptographic operations occur only in the trusted part, these keys should be safe.

Three researchers from the Tel-Aviv university demonstrated that it is not necessarily the case.  ARM’s TrustZone is one of the most used TEEs.  Each vendor must write its own Trusted Application (TA) that executes in the TrustZone for its key store.  The researchers reverse-engineered the Samsung implementation for S8, S9, S20, and S21.  They succeeded in breaching the keys protected by the key store.

The breach is not due to a vulnerability in TrustZone.  It is due to design errors in the TA.

When REE requests to generate a new key, the TA returns a wrapped key, i.e., a key encrypted with a key stored in the root of trust.  In a simplified explanation, the wrapped key is the newly generated key AES-CGM-encrypted with an IV provided by the REE application and a Hardware-Derived Key (HDK) derived from some information supplied by the REE application and the hardware root of trust key.

 In other words, the REE application provides the IV and some data that generate the HDK.  AES-CGM is a stream cipher (uses AES CTR), and thus it is sensitive to IV reuse.  With a streamcipher, you must never reuse an IV with the same key.  Else, it is easy to retrieve the encrypted message with a known ciphertext.  In this case, the attacker has access to the IV used to encrypt the wrapped key and can provide the same `seed` for generating the HDK.   Game over!

In S20 and S21, the key derivation function adds some randomness for each new HDK.  The attacker cannot anymore generate the same HDK.  Unfortunately, the S20 andS21 TA contains the old derivation function.  The researchers found a way to downgrade to the S9 HDK.  Once more, game over!


  1. Never reuse an IV with a streamcipher.  Do not trust the user to generate a new IV, do it yourself.
  2. A Trusted Execution Environment does not protect from a weak/wicked “trusted” application. 
  3. If not necessary, remove all unused software from the implementation.  You reduce the attack surface.


A. Shakevsky, E. Ronen, and A. Wool, “Trust Dies in Darkness: Shedding Light on Samsung’s TrustZone Keymaster Design,” 208, 2022.  Available: http://eprint.iacr.org/2022/208

Black Hat 2021: my preferred talks

Last week, I attended Black Hat 2021. It was a hybrid conference, i.e., both on-site and virtual. As a consequence, there were only four concurrent “physical’ talks at any moment. The number of attendees was far lower than in 2019. I attended the physical ones exclusively with a focus on hacking.

I enjoyed the most the two following talks

Breaking the Isolation: Cross-Account AWS Vulnerabilities by Shir Tamari and Ami Luttwak
They explored the AWS cross services such as CloudTrail or the Serverless Repository. Such services allow to store some data in the same location for several services or read data from the same location for several services. They discovered that the security policy configuration did not define the referenced accounts. Thus, it was possible to use CloudTrail to store files in an S3 bucket that you did not control.
AWS has fixed the issue. Unfortunately, it is up to the customer to update the policies correspondingly; else, the holes are still present.
Fixing a Memory Forensics Blind Spot: Linux Kernel Tracing by Andrew Case and Golden Richard
The ePBF is a programming language that makes access to the Linux kernel tracing easy. The tracing system is mighty. It allows to read registers, hook subsystem calls, etc. From the userland!! Powerful but nasty.
They presented some extensions of their open-source tools to list the hooked calls and other stealthy operations.
I was not aware of ePBF. It opened my eyes and scared me. An earlier talk With Friends Like eBPF, Who Needs Enemies? The authors presented a rootkit based on ePBF. Unfortunately, I did not attend this talk. Would I have known ePBF, I would have attended it. It seems that there were three other ePBF-based talks at DefCon 2021.

In the coming weeks, I will listen to some virtual talks and report the ones I enjoyed.