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Security Risks of Outdated Encryption

Security Risks of Outdated Encryption

Encryption is a crucial part of any organization's cybersecurity strategy. It allows sensitive data to be secured and protected from unauthorized access. Considering the evolving cyber threat landscape, with cyber-attacks growing in prominence, severity and frequency with each passing year, it will pay off to ensure that your encryption methods are up to the task. 

Unfortunately, many businesses are still using outdated encryption methods that leave them dangerously exposed. The aim of encryption is to safeguard information in transit, but many prolific threat actors have begun to find ways around this which nullify some businesses' incumbent protocols.

In this article, we'll examine the vulnerabilities posed by legacy encryption and the types of attacks that businesses are susceptible to when relying on weak cryptography. We will also discuss proactive solutions that organizations can implement to ensure a more cohesive, robust cybersecurity posture.

The Risks of Broken Hash Functions

Hash functions are mathematical algorithms that produce a fixed-length output or "hash value" from an input message. This hash value is then used in cryptographic systems for integrity checks, digital signatures, and message authentication.

However, over time, weaknesses in hash functions can be discovered that allow attackers to more easily produce hash collisions. This means that they can find two inputs that produce the same hash value, undermining cryptographic security.

Some notable examples include Message-Digest Algorithm (MD5) and Secure Hash Algorithm 1 (SHA-1). Flaws were found in these widely used hash functions that meant attackers could feasibly fake digital signatures, allowing them to impersonate legitimate users and bypass security controls. Yet many businesses still rely on outdated algorithms, like MD5, for password hashing and file checksums. This leaves sensitive data open to tampering and unauthorized access.

Upgrading to more robust hash functions like SHA-2 and SHA-3 significantly raises the complexity required to compromise systems protected by cryptographic hashing.

Vulnerabilities in Weak Encryption Keys

The strength of any encryption system is dependent on the size and randomness of the keys used. Smaller key sizes are inherently weaker as they reduce the possible combinations that an attacker would need to attempt a brute force attack in order to gain access.

Weaknesses in how encryption keys are generated can also create vulnerabilities. For example, keys generated by simple mathematical functions instead of secure random number generation make it possible for attackers to more easily guess the keys through cryptanalysis.

Outdated standards like 512-bit RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) and 128-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) are still used by some legacy systems and applications. However, they can now be broken in feasible timeframes by well-resourced attackers. Upgrading to larger key sizes of at least 1024 or 2048 bits for RSA and 256 bits for AES is essential to prevent compromise by brute force attacks.

Risks of Old SSL / TLS Protocols

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and its successor, Transport Layer Security (TLS), are fundamental to securing communications and transactions over the Internet. These protocols enable encrypted connections between clients and servers, protecting sensitive data from interception and tampering.

Nevertheless, there have been various vulnerabilities discovered over the years in older versions of SSL and TLS that can be exploited to compromise connections. These include weaknesses like BEAST, POODLE, and DROWN which enabled attackers to decrypt intercepted TLS traffic.

Deprecated SSL protocols like SSLv3 and early TLS versions like TLS 1.0 and 1.1 lack protections against modern threats. Continuing to allow these older protocols will likely expose numerous types of otherwise encrypted data. Organizations should disable outdated SSL / TLS versions and upgrade to the latest TLS 1.3.

Common Encryption Attack Vectors

Using the vulnerabilities in legacy encryption systems, cybercriminals have a number of options to steal data, infiltrate networks, and commit fraud. Some common attacks include:

  • Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks: By exploiting weaknesses in encryption protocols, attackers can insert themselves into a communication channel between two parties and intercept traffic, and thus steal credentials, data and session keys.
  • Downgrade attacks: When organizations allow outdated SSL/TLS protocols, an attacker can force client connections to downgrade to use the weaker legacy versions that are easier to compromise.
  • Hash collision attacks: Finding two files that produce the same hash value allows attackers to maliciously replace a legitimate file while maintaining the same forged checksum.
  • Brute force attacks: Smaller encryption key sizes allow attackers to rapidly test every possible key combination until the correct key is found through sheer power.
  • Birthday attacks: Manipulating messages can produce mathematically likely hash collisions even against secure algorithms through this attack technique.
  • Padding oracle attacks: Exploiting errors in how some encryption implementations handle padding validation allows attackers to decrypt ciphertexts.

The Impact of Successful Attacks

If attackers manage to exploit vulnerabilities in outdated encryption measures, the consequences for a business can be severe. An organization could experience any of the following types of attacks.

  • Data breaches: Sensitive customer, employee, and brand data, including intellectual property, can be stolen, sold to competitors, or published online.
  • Financial fraud: Attackers can siphon funds en masse, make unauthorized transactions, or commit payment card fraud.
  • System disruption: Malware and ransomware leverage encryption flaws to infiltrate systems and storage and render them inaccessible to users.
  • Non-compliance: Weak encryption violates regulatory requirements like PCI DSS, HIPAA, and GDPR, resulting in hefty fines.
  • Reputational damage: Public disclosure of successful attacks erodes customer trust and can materially impact revenue and share prices.

Proactive Solutions for Robust Security 

To mitigate these risks, organizations should take proactive steps to modernize their encryption security:

  • Upgrade to Strong Encryption Standards: Migrate legacy systems to use large key sizes, robust algorithms, and the latest TLS protocol. Disable outdated cyphers and standards across the board. 
  • Conduct Penetration Testing: Schedule regular penetration testing services to uncover vulnerabilities in your encryption implementations before attackers do, and to understand unknown weak points for immediate remediation.
  • Implement Key Management: Centralize and automate key generation, rotation, storage and revocation through a key management system accessible to authorized users only. 
  • Monitor for Anomalies: Enable log analysis, network monitoring, and other tools to detect abnormal encrypted traffic and encryption misuse. Validate any anomalies with historical data and regular supervision. 
  • Develop Incident Response Plans: Document processes for forensic analysis, containment, and recovery in the event of an encryption-related breach. 
  • Provide Security Training: Educate staff on using encryption properly and risks like unsecured keys, default passwords, and improper disposal of hardware.

Strong encryption hygiene is a fundamental component of cryptographic security. Retiring legacy solutions and consistently deploying modern standards serve to shrink the attack surface and force malicious actors to reconsider attempting to infiltrate your estate.  
These robust solutions outlined above will provide assurance to your organization in its ability to detect and avoid preventable risks while continuing to operate with confidence.

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Note: This blog article was written by a guest contributor for the purpose of offering a wider variety of content for our readers. The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of GlobalSign. 

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