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Dec98: The History of AES

Dr. Dobb's Journal December 1998

The History of AES

In 1972 and 1974, the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) issued the first public request for an encryption algorithm for its new encryption standard. IBM submitted an algorithm that would become DES, arguably the most widely used and successful encryption algorithm in the world.

Despite its popularity, DES has been plagued with controversy. Some cryptographers objected to the closed-door design process of the algorithm, and wondered whether the NSA added a trap door to allow surreptitiously breaking the algorithm. The 56-bit key was viewed by some as too short; certainly it is insufficient for today's security applications.

There are other choices, including IDEA, Blowfish, RC5, and CAST-128. Triple-DES has emerged as an interim solution for banking and other conservative systems, but it is too slow for some uses. (DES was designed when 4-bit components were the norm, and it shows.) More fundamentally, the 64-bit block length shared by DES and most other trusted ciphers opens it up to attacks when large amounts of data are encrypted under the same key. And none of the other choices is a standard in the way that DES is.

In response to a growing desire to replace DES, NIST announced the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) program in January 1997 ( Submissions were due in June 1998, and the 15 submitters presented their algorithms to the world in August at the First AES Candidate Conference. NIST will hold a Second AES Candidate Conference in Rome next March, and will accept public comment on the algorithms until June 15, 1999. It will choose approximately five finalists, solicit another round of public comment, hold a third AES Candidate Conference around January 2000, then choose a winner. Then NIST will make it into a Federal Information Processing Standard.

Think of the process as a cryptographic demolition derby. Everyone submits their algorithms into the ring, then attacks all others while defending their own. The crowd votes for the winner among those left standing at the end. Bloody, yes, but not a bad way to pick an industry standard encryption algorithm.

NIST's call was for a block cipher. Block ciphers can be used to design stream ciphers with a variety of synchronization and error-extension properties, one-way hash functions, message-authentication codes, and pseudorandom number generators. Because of this flexibility, they are the workhorses of modern cryptography.

NIST specified several other design criteria: a longer key length, larger block size, faster speed, and greater flexibility. While no single algorithm can be optimized for all needs, NIST intends AES to become the standard symmetric algorithm of the next several decades.

-- B.S.

Copyright © 1998, Dr. Dobb's Journal

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