The US Government’s National Security Agency (NSA) purchased licensing rights to Certicom Intellectual Property around Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) protocols. This agreement gives the NSA a non-exclusive, worldwide license, with the right to grant sub-licenses, to 26 US patents and applications, and corresponding foreign rights, in a limited field of use. Outside the field of use, Certicom retains all rights to the technology.

What patents did they license?

The NSA licensed Certicom protocol patents, security patents and implementation patents. The NSA licensed patents on Elliptic Curve technology related to some of the Suite B algorithms.

Why did the NSA license these patent?

We believe there are two main reasons the NSA was interested in these patents. First, ECC is the public key technology that offers the most security per bit. As computing power increases, it becomes easier to break all cryptosystems so cryptographic keys must increase as well. The block cipher, Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), has a scalable key size and ECC scales linearly with AES over time. The RSA (Rivest, Shamir and Adelman) public key protocol does not scale; its key sizes grow exponentially and quickly become too big to be computationally efficient. For example, per the National Institution of Standards and Technologies’ (NIST) guidance, AES with a 256-bit key requires a 512-bit ECC key size or a 15,360-bit RSA key size.

FAQ: The National Security Agency's ECC License Agreement with Certicom Corp. (pdf)