Through the Looking Glass

Securing Communications Between Peers

Posted on July 31, 2013

In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, it’s critical for us to look at ways to make sure communications between two peers are secure. The most obvious solution to most people will be cryptography, and we’ll take a look at the cryptographic tools at our disposal to build secure systems.

With cryptography, we have two broad families of cryptographic algorithms available: secret-key and public-key cryptography (also known as symmetric and asymmetric cryptography). In secret key cryptography, one key is used by all communicating peers. In public key cryptography, each peer generates something called a keypair, which consists of a private key (which the peer keeps secret from all other peers) and a public key, which the peer distributes to all other peers it wants to talk to.

When we use public-key cryptography, we use it to establish a shared secret key to communicate with. We do this because public-key cryptography has some limitations (for example, RSA is limited in how much data it can encrypt, and there aren’t any direct encryption primitives for elliptic curves) and is much slower than secret-key encryption.

What are we trying to accomplish?

There’s three basic information security roles that we’re going to use cryptography for:

  1. Confidentiality: we want our messages to be only readable by the peer we choose to communicate with.
  2. Integrity: we want to be assured that our messages aren’t being tampered with.
  3. Authentication: we want to make sure the peer we’re talking to is the peer we think we’re talking to.

What is also critical before starting to figure out the cryptographic side is to develop a threat model. This is a specification that lays out exactly what we’re trying to protect, and whom we’re trying to protect against. Our security measures should hold up under the security model, and will not be expected to hold up outside of that model.

The Key Distribution Problem

Secret-key cryptography comes with a very difficult challenge: securely sharing the secret key. If we’re using cryptography, it’s a fair assumption that the communications channel is not secure. There are a few methods for doing secret key distribution without using public-key cryptography:

Any time secret information is shared in the clear (even via another channel, such as a USB drive), there is an increased risk that this information will be leaked to the wrong parties; when a secret key is leaked, it must be considered compromised and the key changed if the system is to remain secure. Consider the case where one of the peers might be rogue, as well. This quickly turns into a headache when many peers are communicating. The problem is compounded if the key is baked into the peer. Furthermore, with a key shared among all peers, if one peer is rogue, all communications are now compromised. We need to have a separate key for each pair of peers that are communicating.

Public-key cryptography is a useful solution to the key distribution problem, and reduces the problem to a question of trust. Each peer only needs to send other peers its public key, which isn’t secret or sensitive, in order to communicate secretly.

The trust problem

With asymmetric keys, one of the central problems is – can we trust this key belongs to who we think it belongs to? How do we make sure that key is the right key for the peer we want to communicate with?

We have a few options here:

You’ll have to pick a trust model that suits your application. This is goes back to threat modeling: what are you trying to defend against? Who are the peers you’re talking to? These questions should be answered before beginning to design a secure communications system.

Cipher selection

Picking a public-key cipher is an interesting story. Right now, the right answer is virtually always to use an elliptic curve for new systems (they are generally more performant); older systems might require using RSA.

If RSA is required, we’ll want to use RSAES-OAEP for encryption and RSASSA-PSS for signatures. These two schemes are specified in the Public Key Cryptography Standard (PKCS) #1 published by RSA Laboratories;). The standard is currently at version 2.2; however, version 2.1 is standardized as RFC 3447 and is very common. Additionally, RSA requires an additional public key cipher (Diffie-Hellman) for forward secrecy, as we’ll see shortly.

In the case we’re building a secure system ourselves, it’s best to choose NaCl, a cryptographic system designed and built outside of NIST by a respected cryptographer.

So, what size key to use?

In this post, we’ll look at both RSA (because it’s assumed that it still needs to be supported) and ECC (because that’s what we’ll be using when we get to pick which cipher to use).

An aside: RSA v.ECC

Why are we more interested in elliptic curve cryptography than RSA? It turns out it is always faster to generate an ECC key than to generate an RSA key, and in many cases it is orders of magnitude faster. Cryptographic operations with EC keys are also faster than RSA. So, why is RSA prevalent right now? The situation is actually reminiscent of problems with the adoption of RSA, and has to do with patents.

Prior to September 2000, RSA was actually covered under patents held by RSA Labs. This meant most free software used the El-Gamal cipher for encryption, and the Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA) for authentication. After the patents were lifted, RSA began to see heavy adoption. Similarly, much elliptic curve cryptography was covered under patents held by Certicom, and people were afraid of running into legal issues. Most of those issues have been worked out, and we can use the ECDH and ECDSA algorithms without worry.

Also, the standards for communications security in the U.S. government (NSA’s suite B) and Russian government (GOST R 34.10-2000) both omit RSA (and classic Diffie-Hellman, which we’ll discuss shortly) from the list of recommended public-key algorithms; both are based on elliptic curves. One could speculate a lack of confidence in the RSA algorithms from this choice.

Long-term keys

Every peer should have a long-term key that is used to identify that peer. However, it turns out that when keys are used to encrypt a lot of data, the risk of being able to break that encryption increases. For this reason, we’d like to switch out keys regularly. For identity keys, that is a problem: it increases the risk that a peer will have the wrong key for a peer it wishes to communicate with, and therefore the peers can’t communicate. In this case, encryption makes our system unusable. We want to limit our use of the long-term keys so that we can continue to use them for as long as possible.

Key agreement and forward secrecy

One property that is desirable in many systems is that in the event of the compromise of the long term key, messages themselves will not also be compromised. This might not sound possible, but in fact is something we can do. We do this by using the long-term key to sign a public-key session key pair (thereby validating it) and using that key pair for secret-key agreement. This is called forward secrecy, and is a very useful property of secure systems.

In order to communicate with secret-key cryptography, the two peers need to agree on a secret-key to use. There are different ways we could do this: with RSA, we could encrypt a secret key and send that to the peer we’re communicating with, for example. A robust key agreement system is the Diffie-Hellman key agreement method, which dates from the 1970s. By itself, it provides no identity (that is, Diffie-Hellman (DH) keys can’t be used for signatures), but they are generated very quickly (orders of magnitude faster than RSA keys). We can sign these keys with our long-term identity keys, thereby giving the authenticity we want, but without sacrificing performance.

If Alice and Bob both have DH key pairs, DH guarantees that the shared key generated by DH(KAlicepublic, KBobprivate) is the same as the key generated from DH(KAliceprivate, KBobpublic). This means that each pair can generate the same shared key using only their peer’s public key; no secret key material has to be shared, and therefore there is no secret key material that could potentially be compromised in a message. Of course, if one of the DH private keys is compromised, that’s another story entirely.

So with RSA, we’d have

How does this satisfy our security objectives? We get message confidentiality through the use of a symmetric cipher, and message integrity and authentication through the use of a MAC (of which HMAC is the most popular such algorithm). We get peer integrity and authentication through our asymmetric signatures done with the identity key. Peer confidentiality is provided through a key agreement algorithm, such as Diffie-Hellman. Note that our secure systems do not on their own do anything to obscure much metadata: an observer still notes who is talking to whom at what times and how often, and can often note the message size to get a feeling for how much information is being exchanged. This falls into the realm of the anonymity objective.

With elliptic curve cryptography, the elliptic curve Diffie-Hellman algorithm (ECDH) operates on EC keys. With NaCl, we have Curve25519 for ECDH, and Ed25519 for signatures. In this case, we’d have

In many cases, the picture for ECC is actually a little different. The elliptic curve integrated encryption scheme (ECIES) actually supports something called ephemeral key generation, wherein a new EC key pair is generated for each new message. What we could do is generate a key pair for each session, and the peer we’re communicating with will encrypt to that key. So the picture for ephemeral ECIES looks like

The session handshake

When two peers communicate, we have two phases: the handshake phase and encrypted traffic phase. In the handshake phase, peers exchange keys (and during this phase, we validate public keys).

The validation is the most important part of this phase; how this is done is going to vary based on our trust model. Perhaps we ask the network for consensus on a particular public key; perhaps we check our keychain. Remember that we are going to use a key agreement key or a session key agreement key; we need to ensure the right long-term identity key has signed this key agreement key, and we also need to validate the long-term key. Perhaps the long-term key has already been validated, shortening the time to complete this step.

Many systems use a keychain here: a series of trusted long-term public keys. Perhaps these keys belong to trusted central authorities, or perhaps they are the peers we trust (e.g. in the web of trust model). We could also store public keys for peers we’ve talked to before; if we’re asked about the peer’s key during a consensus check, we could check our keychain: we can cast our vote based on the presence of the public key and whether it matches what we’ve seen.

There’s another case we might need to consider: what if a peer’s key has been compromised? If this is a threat in your model, you’ll need a way to check whether a key has been revoked or otherwise invalidated. If you have a trusted authority, for example, it might publish a key revocation list (KRL) that peers can check; this brings its own set of problems. For example, if the trusted authority regularly publishes the KRL, then what happens if a peer’s key is revoked, but the KRL hasn’t published the update yet? What if peers are joining and leaving the network, and aren’t getting the KRL as its published? If we require each connection to check in with the trusted authority, we have to make sure that the trusted authority stays available, that the trusted authority responds with either YES or NO, with a default to NO in the event of difficulty, and so forth. Dealing with revoked and compromised keys is a challenge in and of itself.

Once the asymmetric session keys have been validated, we use them to generate a shared symmetric session key. We need to generate four sets of symmetric keys: a pair of encryption (i.e. AES) keys, and a pair of tag (i.e. HMAC) keys. The peers each take one pair, and use that for encryption. They use the other pair for receiving messages. For example, if Alice and Bob generate Ke1, Ke2, Kt1, and Kt2, Alice might use pair 1 to send messages to Bob, and pair 2 to decrypt messages from Bob. Bob would then use pair 2 to encrypt messages to Alice, and pair 1 to decrypt messages from Bob.

ECIES works a little different: each message has a new ephemeral elliptic curve key. They are ephemeral in the sense that each key is only used for a single message. We can do this with ECC because it is very easy to generate new keys. In this case, if Alice wants to send a message to Bob, she

  1. Generates an ephemeral key.
  2. Uses this ephemeral private key to do a key agreement with Bob’s session public key, generating a shared symmetric key.
  3. Encrypts and authenticates the message with this shared key
  4. Sends the ephemeral public key and the ciphertext to Bob.

When Bob gets this message, he

  1. Splits the message into public key and ciphertext.
  2. Performs key agreement with his private key and the ephemeral public key.
  3. Uses this shared message to decrypt and authenticate the ciphertext.

Wrapping up

To summarise:

The book

If you found this interesting, I’m writing a book on the subject of practical cryptography with the Go programming language. Because it is being published on Leanpub, you get all the updates as they are published; you can also read it for free online, as well. I hope, once the book is finished, to publish a hardcopy version as well.


Jeremy Sherman was responsible for giving me an idea for a topic to write about; Aaron Bieber, Wally Jones, Jeremy, and Greg helped with the proofreading a few drafts to ensure maximum clarity.