The Secret's Out on Cryptography Standard

By: 
Charles Seife
2000-10-03 19:00
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The algorithm is dead; long live the algorithm. After a 3-year international competition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) revealed on 2 October a new cryptographic standard that will safeguard everything from digital bank records to online communications.

The new standard will replace the Digital Encryption Standard (DES), a mathematical recipe used for a quarter century as the government standard, and also used by businesses. Thanks to the increasing speed of computers, hackers have been able to crack the aging cipher, so NIST decided in 1997 to look for a replacement.

The winner is Rijndael, an elegant algorithm designed by Belgians Vincent Rijmen of the Catholic University of Leuven and Joan Daemen of smartcard company Proton World International in Brussels. Rijndael got the nod because it is fast and requires little memory, said NIST director Ray Kammer at a press conference in Maryland. It's so secure that even the National Security Agency, the government spy agency most expert in cryptography, intends to use it to protect some key data from prying eyes.

Rijndael was also the only algorithm among the five finalists not to face a potential patent-infringement lawsuit from Hitachi, which earlier this year made broad claims to an array of mathematical techniques used by ciphers (Science, 19 May, p. 1161). But Kammer says legal issues played no role in the choice.

NIST's encryption competition information

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