In baffling move, TrueCrypt open-source crypto project shuts down

Project managers warn that software is insecure but offer no explanations

In a move that appears designed to provoke widespread questions, the anonymous managers of the TrueCrypt open-source encryption project abruptly pulled the plug on the effort without explanation.

A mysterious message posted on the project's website on Wednesday warned users of unfixed security errors in TrueCrypt and cautioned them about the software not being secure.

The website provided detailed steps for TrueCrypt users to migrate to BitLocker, a commercial encryption tool. BitLocker is also Microsoft's encryption tool that ships with Windows.

"This page exists only to help migrate existing data encrypted by TrueCrypt," the website stated. "The development of TrueCrypt was ended in 5/2014 after Microsoft terminated support of Windows XP. Windows 8/7/Vista and later offer integrated support for encrypted disks and virtual disk images." The message urged users to migrate data encrypted by TrueCrypt to encrypted disks or virtual disk images supported by their operating system platform.

The announcement caused widespread bafflement in the IT security industry.

TrueCrypt, a free, open source encryption file and disk encryption software tool for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, is widely used by corporations, lawyers and other professionals and individuals around the world to encrypt sensitive and confidential data. The software's popularity stems from it ease of use, ability to do on-the-fly encryption of data and robustness.

There have been some 29 million downloads of TrueCrypt . In addition, copies of the software have been distributed via magazine cover CDs and downloaded from servers hosted by others.

Disclosures about the National Security Agency's alleged attempts to subvert popular encryption technologies prompted some to question the trustworthiness of tools like TrueCrypt. The concerns prompted a unique crowdsourced effort to audit TrueCrypt for security issues last fall.

The team behind the open crypto audit project released a report in February summarizing their initial findings. The 32-page report identified several vulnerabilities in the encryption code but none that were considered especially serious.

Wednesday's alert on the TrueCrypt site suggests the decision to pull the plug on the project was somehow tied to Microsoft's decision to stop support for Windows XP.

Almost no one is buying that.

"It makes no sense. This has nothing to do with XP," said Bruce Schneier, noted cryptographer and one of those involved in the TrueCrypt audit.

Like many others posting on blogs and on Twitter, Schneier said he has little idea why the project was killed. He speculated that it might be the result of an internal power struggle within TrueCrypt or a forced shutdown similar to the one at Lavabit a few months ago.

Lavabit, a provider of secure hosted email services, shut down operations last August citing concerns over the FBI's demands for the company's private Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) keys for decrypting email communications. Company founder Ladar Levison said that he would rather shut down the company than hand over the keys that would let the government read customer emails.

It's unclear if TrueCrypt's manager's made a similar decision, Schneier said. "I suppose we'll have to wait and see what develops."

It is also possible that the site was hacked and defaced, but that seems unlikely given the sophisticated skills it would have taken to pull off such a hack so convincingly, he said.

For the moment, users of TrueCrypt's encryption tools should stay put, Schneier said. Until more information becomes available, there is little point in panicking over the security of TrueCrypt. "Honestly, my advice is, do nothing. Don't stop using it. But definitely don't upgrade."

Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he is trying to understand the motivation for such an abrupt move. "There's been a lot of speculation that something bad happened or was about to happen to the developers," he said.

Until more information is available, it's hard to tell users what to do, Schoen said. "Clearly BitLocker isn't a direct substitute for TrueCrypt. It only runs on one operating system (Windows) and not even on all versions of that OS," he said.

It's important to have a conventional open source project similar to TrueCrypt, but with publicly identified developers working in public under a mainstream open source license for cross-platform full-disk encryption, Schoen said.

"If there's some reason that the existing developers can't continue working on the project, I hope they'll take steps to allow the existing TrueCrypt code base to be [used] for other projects," he said.

This article, In baffling move, TrueCrypt open-source encryption project shuts down, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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