Monthly Archives: April 2014


First Phase Of Security Audit Finds Vulnerabilities But No Backdoors In TrueCrypt Encryption Software

In the wake of the serious Heartbleed flaw in OpenSSL, more people are becoming aware of how widely used and important open source encryption tools are, and how their security is too often taken for granted. Some people were already worrying about this back in September last year, when we learned that the NSA had intentionally undermined encryption by weakening standards and introducing backdoors. As Techdirt reported, that led to a call for a security audit of TrueCrypt, a very popular open source disk encryption tool. Fortunately, the Open Crypto Audit Project raised a goodly sum of money through FundFill and IndieGogo, which allowed the first phase of the audit to be funded. Here’s what’s now been done (pdf):

The Open Crypto Audit Project engaged iSEC Partners to review select parts of the TrueCrypt 7.1a disk encryption software. This included reviewing the bootloader and Windows kernel driver for any system backdoors as well as any other security related issues.
The good news:

iSEC found no evidence of backdoors or otherwise intentionally malicious code in the assessed areas.
However, it did still find vulnerabilities in the code it examined:

the iSEC team identified eleven (11) issues in the assessed areas. Most issues were of severity Medium (four (4) found) or Low (four (4) found), with an additional three (3) issues having severity Informational (pertaining to Defense in Depth).


Overall, the source code for both the bootloader and the Windows kernel driver did not meet expected standards for secure code. This includes issues such as lack of comments, use of insecure or deprecated functions, inconsistent variable types, and so forth.
Because of that, among the recommendations that iSEC made was the following:

Improve code quality. Due to lax quality standards, TrueCrypt source is difficult to review and maintain. This will make future bugs harder to find and correct. It also makes the learning curve steeper for those who wish to join the TrueCrypt project.
That’s an important point, and probably something that other open source projects might take to heart, too. Some have called into question whether Linus’s Law — that “all bugs are shallow, given enough eyeballs” — is really true for free software (although Eric Raymond, author of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar“, has offered a robust defense of that claim.) One reason why those eyeballs may not be finding the bugs is that the code, though open, is unnecessarily hard to read.

The fact that vulnerabilities were found — even if “all appear to be unintentional, introduced as the result of bugs rather than malice” as iSEC puts it — is another reason why the second phase of the audit, which will look at the details of how the cryptographic functions have been implemented, is necessary. The discovery of “issues” in TrueCrypt’s code also underlines why similar audits need to be conducted for all important open source security programs: if there are vulnerabilities in TrueCrypt, there are likely to be more elsewhere, perhaps much more serious. Finding them is largely a question of money, which is why companies currently free-riding on free software — perfectly legally — should start seriously thinking about making some voluntary contributions to help audit and improve them to prevent another Heartbleed.