The ideal implementation of a cryptographic algorithm would be such that even if the attacker would have the source code and would entirely control the platform, she would not be able to retrieve the secret key. In 2002, Stanley Chow and his colleagues proposed a new concept coined the white-box cryptography. The threat model of white-box attack assumes that the attacker has full access to the encryption software and entirely controls the execution platform. White-box cryptography attempts to protect the keys even under such a hostile threat model. The main idea is to create a functionally equivalent implementation of the encryption or decryption algorithm that uses only look-up tables. Corresponding look-up tables, with the corresponding hard-coded secret key, replace the S-boxes, Feistel boxes and XOR functions usually employed by symmetric cryptography. Then, the look-up tables are further randomized. In theory, the randomization hides the hard-coded key. White box cryptography is a difficult challenge for skilled reverse engineers.
Abundant cryptographic analysis has demonstrated that these constructions are not theoretically secure. Nevertheless, well-crafted real implementations may resist reverse engineering. Many vendors offer such white-box cryptography for AES. The issue is how do you know whether an implementation is robust. Securing white-box cryptography is a lot of black magic. Currently, the only solutions are either reverse-engineer it yourself or trust your supplier blindly.
Fortunately, the European-funded research project ECRYPT launches an exciting challenge: The WhiBox contest. It is a capture the flag challenge dedicated to white-box cryptography. Developers are encouraged to post AES-128 white-box implementation as a C source code. Attackers are invited to break the challenge, i.e., extract the encryption key.
The contest starts on May 15 and ends August 31. The winners, i.e., the implementation that resisted the longest, and the attacker who broke the “strongest” implementation, during the rump session of CHES 2017.
This initiative is interesting. It will be a benchmark of state of the art in this obscure field. Of course, it will have value only if enough skilled attackers will answer the challenge. I expect some success. It reminds the challenges to evaluate oracle attacks for digital video watermarking (BOWS and BOWS2). BOWS demonstrated the risk associated with the access to a watermark detector.
We will follow this challenge. Will commercial solutions dare to submit implementations? Winning this challenge would be a feather in their hat.
Chow, S., Eisen, P., Johnson, H., Oorschot, P.C. van: A White-Box DES Implementation for DRM Applications. In: Feigenbaum, J. (ed.) Digital Rights Management. pp. 1–15. Springer Berlin Heidelberg (2003).