Journal article

Advanced Differential-Style Cryptanalysis of the NSA's Skipjack Block Cipher

Skipjack is a block cipher designed by the NSA for use in US government phones, and commercial mobile and wireless products by ATT. Among its initial implementations in hardware were the Clipper chip and Fortezza PC cards, which have since influenced the private communications market to be compatible with this technology. For instance, the Fortezza card comes in PCMCIA interface and is a very easy plug-n-play device to add on to mobile and wireless systems to provide encryption for wireless transmissions. Initially classified when it was first proposed, Skipjack was declassified in 1998, and it sparked numerous security analyses from security researchers worldwide because it provides insight into the state-of-the-art security design techniques used by a highly secretive government intelligence agency such as the NSA. In this paper, commemorating a decade since Skipjack's public revelation, we revisit the security of Skipjack, in particular its resistance to advanced differential-style distinguishers. In contrast to previous work that considered conventional and impossible differential distinguishers, we concentrate our attention on the more recent advanced differential-style and related-key distinguishers that were most likely not considered in the original design objectives of the NSA. In particular, we construct first-known related-key impossible differential, rectangle and related-key rectangle distinguishers of Skipjack. Our related-key attacks (i.e., related-key miss-in-the-middle and related-key rectangle attacks) are better than all the previous related-key attacks on Skipjack. Finally, we characterize the strength of Skipjack against all these attacks and motivate reasons why, influenced by the Skipjack structure, some attacks fare better. What is intriguing about Skipjack is its simple key schedule and a structure that is a cross between conventional Feistel design principles and the unconventional use of different round types. This work complements past results on the security analysis of Skipjack and is hoped to provide further insight into the security of an NSA-designed block cipher; the only one publicly known to date.


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