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Financially Supporting Open Crypto

In April 2014, Heartbleed shook the Internet. OpenSSL had introduced a feature called "TLS Heartbeats" Heartbeats allow for a client-encrypted session to remain open between the client and the server, without the need to renegotiate a new connection. In theory, the feature is sound. Heartbeats should minimize load on busy servers, and improve responsiveness on the client. However, due to a simple oversight in the code, buffers could be over-read, allowing the client to request much more data from the server's memory than needed. As a result, usernames and passwords cached in the server's memory could be leaked to the client.

This was a nasty bug, and it underscored how under-staffed and under-funded the OpenSSL development team is. OpenSSL is the de facto standard in securing data in motion for the Internet. It protects your web connections when visiting your bank's website, and it protects your email communication between your email client and the upstream mail server.

Ars Technica started off an article about tech giants finally agreeing to fund the OpenSSL development. Quote:

The open source cryptographic software library secures hundreds of thousands of Web servers and many products sold by multi-billion-dollar companies, but it operates on a shoestring budget. OpenSSL Software Foundation President Steve Marquess wrote in a blog post last week that OpenSSL typically receives about $2,000 in donations a year and has just one employee who works full time on the open source code.

If that isn't bad enough, Werner Koch, the sole developer and maintainer of the encryption software "GnuPG" is in much the same position as Steve Marquess. ProPublica put up a post about the very sobering financial situation of GnuPG. Quote:

The man who built the free email encryption software used by whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as hundreds of thousands of journalists, dissidents and security-minded people around the world, is running out of money to keep his project alive.

Werner Koch wrote the software, known as Gnu Privacy Guard, in 1997, and since then has been almost single-handedly keeping it alive with patches and updates from his home in Erkrath, Germany. Now 53, he is running out of money and patience with being underfunded.

To understand just how critical this piece of software is to the Internet and the community at large, OpenPGP (the specification upon which GnuPG is built) is used by software developers around the world to prove the integrity of their software, when downloading it from their website. It's used by operating system vendors, such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and GNU/Linux to provide package integrity when installing "apps" on your computer or mobile device. People and corporations have used it internally for data at rest as well, such as encrypting backups before sending them offsite.

Thankfully, after ProPublica published their article, Werner Koch, father and husband, got the donation funding he needed to continue focusing on it full time. Thanks to Facebook and Stripe, he has $100,000 of annual sponsored donations to help keep the development of GnuPG pressing forward.

Why is it that the two most fundamental cryptographic tools in our community are so under developed, under funded, and under staffed? I can understand that cryptography is hard. There is a reason why people get doctorate degrees in mathematics and computer science to understand this stuff. But with such critical pieces of infrastructure protection, you would think it would be getting much more attention than it is.

A good rule of thumb for cryptography, is if you want to protect your data in transit, use OpenSSL; if you want to protect your data at rest, use GnuPG. Let's hope that these two projects get the attention and funding they need to continue well into the future for years to come.

If you want to help donate to these two projects, you can donate to GnuPG here and to OpenSSL here. Alternatively, there is a Flattr donation page for GnuPG where you can setup recurring donations here.

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