[cryptography] Kernel space vs userspace RNG

Russell Leidich pkejjy at gmail.com
Thu May 5 19:58:25 EDT 2016

All else being equal, I would prefer to have my TRNG in the kernel, for the
aforementioned reasons of memory access security.

But in the real world, this distinction is minor. More significantly,
kernel TRNGs differ from userspace ones in their use of hardware sources of
randomness, such as network packet contents and mouse movements.
Conventionally, this is considered to be a good thing because it provides a
diversity of entropy sources which are difficult to model, and must all be
modelled in different ways. By comparison, my own userspace TRNGs (Jytter
and Enranda) rely on only the CPU timer.

I would argue, however, that using hardware randomness is fundamentally
less secure at the only level that actually matters (overall real world
systemic security), even if the ultimate source of the randomness is
perfect in the quantum sense. The reason has nothing to do with the source
itself. Rather, it's the bus between the CPU and the source which is so
horribly exploitable, to say nothing of the bugs invited by touching so
much hardware. It takes little sophistication or money to insert a probe
between the two, or better yet, to manufacture a motherboard with such a
tap built in. Sure, a CPU manufacturer could record accesses to the timer
which resides on die, but then they would have the problem of needing to
conspire with motherboard vendors to radiate that data back to the cloud,
perhaps via a network chip which "accidentally" contacts a particular IP on
rare occasion. But less conspiratorially speaking, a bus tap could be
installed in an evil maid attack using a screwdriver. For that matter, it's
not too difficult to imagine a drone which could fly into a data center and
deposit a high precision electromagnetic sensor on the outside of a server
rack, sensitive to the frequencies used on the frontside bus. At least in
principle, Fourier analysis could be used to reverse engineer the signals
travelling across the bus from the 2D slice of radiation incident to the
receiving surface of the sensor. MRI machines have been using similar radio
wave decoding math for decades, with obvious success.

However, said evil maid could not read the inputs to a timer-based TRNG so
easily, because doing so would generally require the root password or an OS
vulnerability or a JTAG connection to the CPU pads, in which case all of
encryption is moot anyway. If said TRNG resided in userspace, then in
theory a security hole in an application could facilitate remote
compromise, but the same could be said of applications which read
/dev/random, then store the results in their userspace memory.

If I were to use any hardware other than the CPU timer, I would want an
encrypted connection between the hardware source and the CPU core, leaving
as little decrypted raw entropy in memory or higher level caches as
possible. For example, CPU debug registers would be preferable to a line in
the level 2 cache. There is also the question of key exchange spoofing
across that leaky bus hierarchy. And where would we get the entropy to
encrypt that connection? D'oh! Ah, but we could use trusted platform
modules! Uhm, no, because it's much easier to create weak hardware RNGs
which look solid than to engineer the CPU to poison timer-based TRNGs with
predictable timestamps, because those timestamps would stick out like sore
thumbs. And also no because TPMs reside on the same leaky bus, usually LPC
which is indirectly connected to PCIe, affording two attacks for the price
of one. I'm more sanguine about the sort of TRNG registers that DJ
mentioned, which are readable in userspace but reside on-die, than any
external solutions, although I don't trust them completely because
weakening them in an indetectable manner would require much less
sophisticated engineering than weakening the timestamp; they might be
combined for greater security.

One criticism against timer-based TRNGs is that when booting very simple
devices disconnected from the network, their outputs will become more
predictable. This is probably true, but part of the validation and testing
of the TRNG would be to run it under such circumstances (probably in
relative cryostasis) and appropriately adjust the lower bound entropy. It's
much easier to perform such characterization for a timer-based TRNG than a
"kitchen sink" TRNG susceptible to the unknown statistical vagaries of a
wide diversity of hardware.

In other words, it's better to have weak entropy that you know to be weak,
and can scale to strength, than strong entropy which is susceptible to
unpredictable massive downspikes in quality, especially insofar as concerns
hardware which was never intended to behave as a TRNG, e.g. a spinning
disc. What is hard for the attacker to model is also hard for the designer
to model.

It's obviously appealing, then, to think of hybridizing timer and device
entropy. All else being equal, this would seem to be the most secure
approach. If we disregard the negative implications for bandwidth (because
when you're monitoring that hardware output, you're missing out on timer
entropy), there is the issue of ensuring homogenous mixing: we can't
substitute audio entropy for keyboard entropy, etc., because the whole
point is that we don't trust any one source in isolation. So we need to
ensure that each source is mixed into each random output, directly or
indirectly, which then further constrains bandwidth. Otherwise, a burst of
predictable behavior, such as an error storm, might suddenly arise from one
particular device, which was not contemplated in the model developed by the
programmer of the TRNG. To the extent that such error storms might be
induced by attack, we would have a serious problem. And there's the issue
of expanding the OS security surface by sticking our fingers into so many
driver interfaces. And then there's the risk that hardware traffic
radiating across the bus would also give an attacker a hint as to when you
will read the timer. So then you downthrottle the entropy value of the
timer, yet further constraining bandwidth...

I will be the first to admit that in the present crisis of entropy
starvation, which can only get worse with the rise of IoT, the most
successful approach may well end up being the one which is sufficiently
fast and has passed the test of time, rather than the one which is
theoretically the most secure. Starfish are evolutionarily successful
because they're simple and highly adaptable, even though they're not very

For those who wish to develop hardware TRNGs, I would recommend that you at
least quantify the randomness of your raw entropy stream by analyzing it
with Dyspoissometer or the like. This won't prove that it's not all
pseudorandom, but it will help to catch overly optimistic assumptions about
said stream, especially in rare operating modes in which it becomes
temporarily much more predictable.

On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 9:40 AM, shawn wilson <ag4ve.us at gmail.com> wrote:

> Just reflecting on the Linux RNG thread a bit ago, is there any technical
> reason to have RNG in kernel space?
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