Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

Encrypted USB Drives Hacked: What Went Wrong?

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Jun 7, 2011 8:30:00 AM

I’ve always liked those Holiday Inn Express commercials with the theme of “Stay Smart.” The commercials portray an “expert” stepping in to save the day. In one, a “nuclear expert” takes charge of a reactor about to melt down. In another a “doctor” arrives to deliver a baby just in the nick of time. The tag line is funny because the so-called expert turns out not to be a nuclear scientist or a doctor, but just an average person who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. That made them “smart.” Don’t worry; I’ll bring this discussion back to encryption momentarily.

A while back, reports surfaced of broken encryption security for some Kingston, Verbatim, and SanDisk secure USB storage devices. Not all of the vendor’s devices were affected, but some of their most popular products were. All these products were NIST-certified, causing some industry commentators to erroneously question the certification process. Being a big believer in independent certification, I’d like to weigh in on this controversy and set the record straight.

encryption keysAs it turns out, the weakness, in these devices, was not in the actual AES encryption, but in the key management processes. All the affected vendors quickly released replacements or patches to fix the problem, which is the right thing to do. But it was fascinating to watch some of the responses to this problem. Many commentators complained that the FIPS-140 testing was faulty, or that FIPS-140 testing was irrelevant. The implication is that FIPS-140 does not really give you any assurance of security, and therefore, also by implication, that it is not important.

This is really the wrong conclusion. Let me talk a little about FIPS-140 certification and what is does mean.

FIPS-140 ValidationFirst, FIPS-140 certification is not a guarantee of security. It is an assurance that encryption and related security algorithms have been implemented in compliance with published standards, that an application uses good practices in exposing it’s operational interfaces, that start up tests validate that the application has not been modified or corrupted, that cryptographic material is not exposed in application logs or leaked to memory, and that an independent expert has reviewed the source code. Going through a FIPS-140 certification is a grueling process for an encryption vendor and almost always results in finding some issues that need to be addressed to make the product more secure. Companies that engage in FIPS-140 certifications produce better products, and become better security designers in the process.

Is the FIPS-140 testing and certification process perfect? Of course not. That’s not a standard anyone can meet. In fact, NIST is working on a project right now to enhance the process. Believe me, the new certification process (probably to be named FIPS-140-3, for version 3) will not be weaker than the current process, it will be better.

The lesson from the encrypted USB problem is not that FIPS-140 certification is meaningless. It’s that doing encryption right is really difficult. If you want a secure USB storage device, you would NEVER consider using a product that was not FIPS-140 certified. We have plenty of experience of broken security on non-certified products. Problems with certified products are rare, but do happen. Usually you will find that a problem with a FIPS-140 certified product is with some aspect of the application that was out of scope for the certification. That’s the case for the encrypted USB devices that had problems.

To bring us back full circle, I just want to say that no responsible Enterprise should trust a non-certified USB device, anymore than you or I should trust a “doctor” to perform surgery because that “doctor” stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. The sad fact is that many large corporations today are putting their trust in encryption vendors who have not FIPS-140 certified their products. The management of these companies would never consider using a $100 secure USB device without certification, but do entrust the protection of huge amounts of sensitive data to non-certified vendors. In this age where too many try to pass themselves off as experts, it often takes an organization like NIST to certify the expertise behind something as important as encryption.

I’m proud of our NIST certifications – we will never back down from our commitment to provide you with the best security products and our commitment to independent certification. You can learn more about FIPS-140 certification on our web site, or directly from NIST at

For more information, download our white paper "AES Encryption and Related Concepts" and learn about how proper encryption and encryption key management work together to secure your data.

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Topics: NIST, Encryption Key Management, AES