When a KEM is not enough

In my previous post, I described the KEM/DEM paradigm for hybrid encryption. The key encapsulation mechanism is given the recipient’s public key and outputs a fresh AES key and an encapsulation of that key that the recipient can decapsulate to recover the AES key. In this post I want to talk about several ways that the KEM interface falls short and what to do about it:

  • As I’ve discussed before, the standard definition of public key encryption lacks any authentication of the sender, and the KEM-DEM paradigm is no exception. You often want to have some idea of where a message came from before you process it, so how can we add sender authentication?
  • If you want to send the same message to multiple recipients, a natural approach would be to encrypt the message once with a fresh AES key and then encrypt the AES key for each recipient. With the KEM approach though we’ll end up with a separate AES key for each recipient. How can we send the same message to multiple recipients without encrypting the whole thing separately for each one?
  • Finally, the definition of public key encryption used in the KEM/DEM paradigm doesn’t provide forward secrecy. If an attacker ever compromises the recipient’s long-term private key, they can decrypt every message ever sent to that recipient. Can we prevent this?

In this article I’ll tackle the first two issues and show how the KEM/DEM abstractions can be adjusted to cope with each. In a follow-up post I’ll then show how to tackle forward secrecy, along with replay attacks and other issues. Warning: this post is longer and has more technical details than the previous post. It’s really meant for people who already have some experience with cryptographic algorithms.

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Hybrid encryption and the KEM/DEM paradigm

If you know a bit about public key cryptography, you probably know that you don’t directly encrypt a message with a public key encryption algorithm like RSA. This is for many reasons, one of which being that it is incredibly slow. Instead you do what’s called hybrid encryption: first you generate a random AES key (*) and encrypt the message with that (using a suitable authenticated encryption mode), then you encrypt the AES key with the RSA public key. The recipient uses their RSA private key to decrypt the AES key and then uses that to decrypt the rest of the message. This is much faster than trying to encrypt a large message directly with RSA, so pretty much all sane implementations of RSA encryption do this.

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Public key authenticated encryption and why you want it (Part II)

In Part I, I made the argument that even when using public key cryptography you almost always want authenticated encryption. In this second part, we’ll look at how you can actually achieve public key authenticated encryption (PKAE) from commonly available building blocks. We will concentrate only on approaches that do not require an interactive protocol. (Updated 12th January 2019 to add a description of a NIST-approved key-agreement mode that achieves PKAE).

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Public key authenticated encryption and why you want it (Part I)

If you read or watch any recent tutorial on symmetric (or “secret key”) cryptography, one lesson should be clear: in 2018 if you want to encrypt something you’d better use authenticated encryption. This not only hides the content of a message, but also ensures that the message was sent by one of the parties that has access to the shared secret key and that it hasn’t been tampered with. It turns out that without these additional guarantees (integrity and authenticity), the contents of a message often does not remain secret for long either. Continue reading “Public key authenticated encryption and why you want it (Part I)”

Java KeyStores – the gory details

Java KeyStores are used to store key material and associated certificates in an encrypted and integrity protected fashion. Like all things Java, this mechanism is pluggable and so there exist a variety of different options. There are lots of articles out there that describe the different types and how you can initialise them, load keys and certificates, etc. However, there is a lack of detailed technical information about exactly how these keystores store and protect your key material. This post attempts to gather those important details in one place for the most common KeyStores.
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So how *do* you validate (NIST) ECDH public keys?

Updated 20th July 2017 to clarify notation for the point of infinity. A previous version used the symbol 0 (zero) rather than O, which may have been confusing.

Updated 28th May 2020: in step 4 of the full validation check, n is the order of the prime sub-group defined by the generator point G, not the order of the curve itself. This is critical for security if you are performing this check because small-order points will satisfy the order of the curve (which is h * n), but not the order of G.

In the wake of the recent critical security vulnerabilities in some JOSE/JWT libraries around ECDH public key validation, a number of implementations scrambled to implement specific validation of public keys to eliminate these attacks. But how do we know whether these checks are sufficient? Is there any guidance on what checks should be performed? The answer is yes, but it can be a bit hard tracking down exactly what validation needs to be done in which cases. For modern elliptic curve schemes like X25519 and Ed25519, there is some debate over whether validation should be performed at all in the basic primitive implementations, as the curve eliminates some of the issues while high-level protocols can be designed to eliminate others. However, for the NIST standard curves used in JOSE, the question is more clear cut: it is absolutely critical that public keys are correctly validated, as evidenced by the linked security alert.

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