Certicom Corp., which has been aspiring to major-league status among suppliers of information security technology, has taken some important steps in that direction.
Long regarded as a maverick competitor of the data encryption company RSA Security Inc., Certicom has announced an arrangement with AT&T Corp. that lets it more closely integrate RSA's technology with its own.
Certicom also licensed the security method it champions, elliptic curve cryptography, to Hewlett-Packard Co., providing entree into on-line banking and transaction processing markets and others falling within that prominent Silicon Valley vendor's OpenView product framework.
HP's OpenView "is the first established household-name infrastructure environment that we have gotten elliptic curve into," said Certicom president Rick Dalmazzi.
In a third move this month, Certicom unveiled the SSL Plus Product Family, designed to meet a wide range of needs in the growing market for security based on the Secure Sockets Layer specification. The Toronto company, which has a U.S. office in Hayward, Calif., is the leading supplier of SSL system-developer tool kits by virtue of its 1998 acquisition of Consensus Development Corp.
"SSL is the security protocol of the Internet, and Certicom has the most widely deployed and trusted SSL product offering available," Mr. Dalmazzi said. "Whether e-business is conducted on the desktop, palmtop, or set-top, we can secure it with our SSL Plus Product Family."
As a chief exponent of elliptic curve cryptography, or ECC, Certicom has built an impressive list of customers and licensees, particularly makers of mobile telephones, pagers, other wireless communications devices such as the Palm organizer, and smart cards.
In comparison with longer-established cryptographic algorithms from RSA Security, ECC is considered faster to calculate and less burdensome on the computing capacity of "constrained devices." Certicom claims that ECC makes feasible the Secure Electronic Transaction protocol, which the credit card industry has been struggling to sell as an improvement on SSL.
But the Canadian company has had to overcome concerns that ECC has not been subjected to the laboratory analysis and market testing that over many years have proved the strength of RSA systems.
The wireless boom and the still-dominant SSL are fueling growth at Certicom. The $2.2 million (U.S. currency) of revenue in its first fiscal quarter, which ended July 31, was 36% more than in the previous three months and up 293% from a year earlier. Its operating loss narrowed to $1.57 million, from $2.24 million in the April quarter and $2.58 million a year earlier.
Certicom was handicapped, Mr. Dalmazzi said, by a lack of flexibility in linking ECC-equipped devices with RSA-programmed back-end systems. This had become increasingly crucial with the actual and anticipated popularity of "client" devices such as the Palm VII from licensee 3Com Corp. A bank legacy system's communication of account data to a Research in Motion Ltd. RIM pager, an ECC-embedded device, would be an example of the need for crossover.
Certicom closed the gap through its agreement with AT&T, which has a license from RSA that lets it work with other suppliers. Certicom designates AT&T its preferred supplier of RSA cryptography, "and now we can offer a combination of ECC in the client working together with RSA at the back end," Mr. Dalmazzi said.
This makes possible an easier exchange of digital certificates that authenticate parties at either end of a transaction. Certicom was previously in the awkward position of requiring customers interested in an ECC-RSA hybrid to make separate contact with RSA Security Inc.
Even as Certicom and RSA remain tough competitors, their moves in each other's direction have tended to legitimize ECC and reduce the level of scientific skepticism. Several months before Certicom was able to say it could offer the full range of encryption technologies, including RSA, RSA added versions of ECC to its BSAFE developer tool kits.
AT&T, meanwhile, "intends to be a major provider of information security technologies," said Tony Cira, a vice president of the telecommunications giant. "We believe Certicom will be the dominant player in securing Internet appliances, and we are excited about our partnership with them. It is an extremely strategic partnership for us."
At Hewlett-Packard, Polly Siegel, director of engineering for OpenView security management, said high performance is paramount in the decision to make Certicom's SSL and ECC technologies standard components. "We chose Certicom encryption because it provides maximum efficiency with maximum security," she said.
Node Sentry, a network intrusion-detection system, would be the first OpenView product to ship with the Certicom technology included, HP said.
"This is a good example of the importance of cryptographic efficiency in the traditional computing infrastructure," Mr. Dalmazzi said. "More efficient cryptography means less processor usage and less network bandwidth usage, which translates to cost savings for the enterprise customer."
"We have been mainly on small devices," Mr. Dalmazzi stated in an interview. "But back-end efficiency is important too. Our technology will be used on the back end where secure communications are necessary, even where the environment is not constrained."
Certicom cited a May study by Networkshop Inc. showing that the SSL Plus 3.0 software with ECC processed a Secure Sockets Layer transaction four to eight times faster than with a traditional RSA encryption algorithm.
The SSL Plus Product Family includes that 3.0 package, currently compatible with RSA and with the major Internet server brands and digital certificate offerings.
Also in the product group are SSL Plus for Java and SSL Plus for Embedded Systems. The last can work on such operating systems as Palm, Microsoft CE, WindRiver VX Works, and Symbian EPOC32. It is used by companies such as AvantGo and 724 Solutions that develop systems for information delivery to wireless devices.
"This gives us the widest range of options for SSL, with ECC underneath it in many cases," Mr. Dalmazzi said.
"Many of today's secure network applications are plagued with performance problems related to standard SSL," said Diana Kelley, senior security analyst of Hurwitz Group. "This results in user dissatisfaction, increased server-hardware costs, or both. SSL and ECC technologies can help solve this problem."
Robert Harley, an Irish mathematician, has taken credit for breaking an elliptic curve cryptosystem code in one of a series of challenges sponsored by Certicom Corp.
The challenge, similar to those sponsored by RSA Security Inc., is designed to demonstrate the relative strengths or weaknesses of data encryption algorithms and key sizes, whether of the traditional RSA variety or ECC. Keys are the streams of computer bits that close and open secure messages. The longer the key, the harder it is to violate security. Elliptic curves require fewer bits -- and therefore less processing power -- to provide the protection of any given RSA system.
Mr. Harley developed open-source software that was used in a coordinated attack on Certicom's "ECC2-97 problem" by 195 volunteers in 20 countries. They took 40 days of calculation using 740 computers.
The group, coordinated by the French national computer research institute, INRIA, said the exercise proved that a 97-bit key based on elliptic curves is harder to break than 512 bits with RSA.
A 512-bit RSA code was recently broken by the factorization method. Arjen Lenstra, vice president in Citibank's corporate technology office in New York, who contributed to that RSA challenge success, said the Certicom result makes 160-bit ECC keys look "even better" when compared to 1,024-bit RSA keys.
"Ideally we would like new theoretical advances to further reinforce these practical results," Mr. Lenstra said, "although such advances appear out of reach for the moment."
Andrew Odlyzko, head of mathematics and cryptography research at AT&T Laboratories, said the Harley team's accomplishment "validates theoretical security predictions and demonstrates the need to keep increasing key sizes to protect against growing threats." ?