Matching primitive strengths (25 May 2014)
It's a common, and traditional, habit to match the strengths of cryptographic primitives. For example, one might design at the 128-bit security level and pick AES-128, SHA-256 and P-256. Or if someone wants “better” security, one might target a 192-bit security level with AES-192, SHA-384 and P-384. NIST does this sort of thing, for example in 800-57/3, section 5.2.
The logic underlying this is that an attacker will attack at a system's weakest point, so anything that is stronger than the weakest part is a waste. But, while matching up the security level might have made sense in the past, I think it warrants reconsideration now.
Consider the energy needed to do any operation 2128 times: Landauer tells us that erasing a bit takes a minimum amount of energy any actual crypto function will involve erasing many bits. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that we're doing a single bit XOR. If we take the minimum energy at room temperature (to save energy on refrigeration) we get 2.85×10-21 × 2128 = 0.97×1018J. That's about “yearly electricity consumption of South Korea as of 2009” according to Wikipedia. If we consider that actually doing anything useful in each of those 2128 steps is going to take orders of magnitude more bit operations, and that we can't build a computer anywhere near the theoretic limit, we can easily reach, say, 5.5×1024J, which is “total energy from the Sun that strikes the face of the Earth each year”.(The original version of this post discussed incrementing a 128-bit counter and said that it took two erasures per increment. Samuel Neves on Twitter pointed out that incrementing the counter doesn't involve destroying the information of the old value and several people pointed out that one can hit all the bit-patterns with a Gray code and thus only need to flip a single bit each time. So I changed the above to use a one-bit XOR as the basic argument still holds.)
So any primitive at or above the 128-bit security level is equally matched today, because they are all effectively infinitely strong.
One way to take this is to say that anything above 128 bits is a waste of time. Another is to say that one might want to use primitives above that level, but based on the hope that discontiguous advances leave it standing but not the lesser primitives. The latter involves a lot more guesswork than the old practice of making the security levels match up. Additionally, I don't think most people would think that an analytic result is equally likely for all classes of primitives, so one probably doesn't want to spend equal amounts of them all.
Consider the difference between P-256 and P-384 (or curve25519 and Curve41417 or Hamburg's Goldilocks-448). If they are all infinitely strong today then the reason to want to use a larger curve is because you expect some breakthrough, but not too much of a breakthrough. Discrete log in an elliptic-curve group is a square-root work function today. For those larger curves to make sense you have to worry about a breakthrough that can do it in cube-root time, but not really forth-root and certainly not fifth-root. How much would you pay to insure yourself against that, precise possibility? And how does that compare against the risk of a similar breakthrough in AES?
It is also worth considering whether the security-level is defined in a way matches your needs. AES-128 is generally agreed to have a 128-bit security level, but if an attacker is happy breaking any one of 2n keys then they can realise a significant speedup. An “unbalanced” choice of cipher key size might be reasonable if that attack is a concern.
So maybe a 256-bit cipher (ciphers do pretty well now, just worry about Grover's algorithm), SHA-384 (SHA-256 should be fine, but hash functions have, historically, had a bad time) and
128512(? see below)-bit McEliece is actually “balanced” these days.
(Thanks to Mike Hamburg and Trevor Perrin, with whom I was discussing this after Mike presented his Goldilocks curve. Thanks to JP Aumasson on Twitter and pbsd on HN for suggesting multi-target attacks as a motivation for large cipher key sizes. Also to pbsd for pointing out a quantum attack against McEliece that I wasn't aware of.)