Security Through Obscurity

Do port knocking or SPA fall into the category of security through obscurity? This has been a hotly debated topic since port knocking was first announced to the security community, and people have strong feelings on both sides. No doubt the controversy will not be settled here; my hope is to provide some food for thought.9

When a new security technology is proposed, researchers around the globe vet its architecture. One of the common tests of a security technology is whether or not it suffers from security through obscurity; if it does, people try to fix the architecture. It is therefore important to determine whether SPA suffers from security through obscurity. Bruce Schneier states the following in the preface to Applied Cryptography:

. . . If I take a letter, lock it in a safe, hide the safe somewhere in New York, then tell you to read the letter, that's not security. That's obscurity. On the other hand, if I take a letter and lock it in a safe, and then give you the safe along with the design specifications of the safe and hundreds of identical safes with their combinations so that you and the world's best safecrackers can study the locking mechanism—and you still can't open the safe and read the letter— that's security. . . .

8 It is possible to keep web connections open in some situations; see the KeepAlive directive in Apache (see http://httpd.apache.org/ docs/1.3/mod/core.html#keepalive).

9 Many of these ideas were first suggested by Sebastien Jeanquier in his master's thesis, "An Analysis of Port Knocking and Single Packet Authorization," at the Information Security Group of the Royal Holloway College at the University of London (see http://www.isg.rhul.ac.uk).

Any open source implementation of port knocking or SPA is analogous to someone providing all of the details to the inner workings of a safe. Everything, from the encryption algorithms to how each piece of software interfaces with the packet filter, is open for all to see. The only thing hidden as encrypted SPA packets or port-knocking sequences traverse the network are the encryption keys themselves, and strong cryptosystems do not suffer from security through obscurity just because the encryption keys are not advertised to the world.

Now, consider a security system that is weaker than port knocking or SPA. Suppose that a vulnerability is found within a particular function in the OpenSSH server daemon, and that I create a hypothetical patch to OpenSSH that requires all attempts to access this function by a remote SSH client to provide a bit of encrypted data. This data would be encrypted with a well-known and scrutinized cipher such as Rijndael or the Elgamal cipher used by GnuPG.

One could argue, and I do, that in this hypothetical example, the possibility of a compromise leveraging this vulnerability is marginalized to the extent that the encryption algorithm is secure, and that, as such, this fix does not rely on security through obscurity.

Port knocking (at least in its encrypted forms) and SPA offer even better security properties than this contrived example, because a would-be malicious client cannot even establish a TCP session with the TCP stack on the SSH server, let alone talk to the SSH daemon, without providing a similarly encrypted bit of data. So, in both port knocking and SPA, we essentially have a mechanism for generalizing the contrived example above such that all functions in the OpenSSH daemon are inaccessible without first providing this bit of encrypted data. Therefore, neither port knocking nor SPA should be thought of as merely a security-through-obscurity technology.

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