Applied Cryptography, Second Edition: Protocols, Algorthms, and Source Code in C (cloth)
(Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)
Author(s): Bruce Schneier
ISBN: 0471128457
Publication Date: 01/01/96

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Controlling Key Usage

In some applications it may be desirable to control how a session key is used. Some users may need session keys only for encryption or only for decryption. Session keys might only be authorized for use on a certain machine or at a certain time. One scheme to handle these sorts of restrictions attaches a Control Vector (CV) to the key; the control vector specifies the uses and restrictions for that key (see Section 24.1) [1025,1026]. This CV is hashed and XORed with a master key; the result is used as an encryption key to encrypt the session key. The resultant encrypted session key is then stored with the CV. To recover the session key, hash the CV and XOR it with the master key, and use the result to decrypt the encrypted session key.

The advantages of this scheme are that the CV can be of arbitrary length and that it is always stored in the clear with the encrypted key. This scheme assumes quite a bit about tamperproof hardware and the inability of users to get at the keys directly. This system is discussed further in Sections 24.1 and 24.8.

8.6 Updating Keys

Imagine an encrypted data link where you want to change keys daily. Sometimes it’s a pain to distribute a new key every day. An easier solution is to generate a new key from the old key; this is sometimes called key updating.

All it takes is a one-way function. If Alice and Bob share the same key and they both operate on it using the same one-way function, they will get the same result. Then they can take the bits they need from the results to create the new key.

Key updating works, but remember that the new key is only as secure as the old key was. If Eve managed to get her hands on the old key, she can perform the key updating function herself. However, if Eve doesn’t have the old key and is trying a ciphertext-only attack on the encrypted traffic, this is a good way for Alice and Bob to protect themselves.

8.7 Storing Keys

The least complex key storage problem is that of a single user, Alice, encrypting files for later use. Since she is the only person involved, she is the only person responsible for the key. Some systems take the easy approach: The key is stored in Alice’s brain and never on the system. Alice is responsible for remembering the key and entering it every time she needs a file encrypted or decrypted.

An example of this system is IPS [881]. Users can either directly enter the 64-bit key or enter the key as a longer character string. The system then generates a 64-bit key from the character string using a key-crunching technique.

Another solution is to store the key in a magnetic stripe card, plastic key with an embedded ROM chip (called a ROM key), or smart card [556,557,455]. A user could then enter his key into the system by inserting the physical token into a special reader in his encryption box or attached to his computer terminal. While the user can use the key, he does not know it and cannot compromise it. He can use it only in the way and for the purposes indicated by the control vector.

A ROM key is a very clever idea. People understand physical keys, what they signify and how to protect them. Putting a cryptographic key in the same physical form makes storing and protecting that key more intuitive.

This technique is made more secure by splitting the key into two halves, storing one half in the terminal and the other half in the ROM key. The U.S. government’s STU-III secure telephone works this way. Losing the ROM key does not compromise the cryptographic key—change that key and everything is back to normal. The same is true with the loss of the terminal. This way, compromising either the ROM key or the system does not compromise the cryptographic key—an adversary must have both parts.

Hard-to-remember keys can be stored in encrypted form, using something similar to a key-encryption key. For example, an RSA private key could be encrypted with a DES key and stored on disk. To recover the RSA key, the user has to type in the DES key to a decryption program.

If the keys are generated deterministically (with a cryptographically secure pseudo-random-sequence generator), it might be easier to regenerate the keys from an easy-to-remember password every time they are required.

Ideally, a key should never appear unencrypted outside the encryption device. This isn’t always possible, but it is a worthy goal.

8.8 Backup Keys

Alice is the chief financial officer at Secrets, Ltd.—“We don’t tell you our motto.” Like any good corporate officer, she follows the company’s security guidelines and encrypts all her data. Unfortunately, she ignores the company’s street-crossing guidelines and gets hit by a truck. What does the company’s president, Bob, do?

Unless Alice left a copy of her key, he’s in deep trouble. The whole point of encryption is to make files unrecoverable without the key. Unless Alice was a moron and used lousy encryption software, her files are gone forever.

Bob can avoid this in several ways. The simplest is sometimes called key escrow (see Section 4.14): He requires all employees to write their keys on paper and give them to the company’s security officer, who will lock them in a safe somewhere (or encrypt them all with a master key). Now, when Alice is bowled over on the Interstate, Bob can ask his security officer for her key. Bob should make sure to have the combination to the safe himself as well; otherwise, if the security officer is run over by another truck, Bob will be out of luck again.

The problem with this key management system is that Bob has to trust his security officer not to misuse everyone’s keys. Even more significantly, all the employees have to trust the security officer not to misuse their keys. A far better solution is to use a secret-sharing protocol (see Section 3.7).

When Alice generates a key, she also divides up that key into some number of pieces. She then sends each piece—encrypted, of course—to a different company officer. None of those pieces alone is the key, but someone can gather all the pieces together and reconstruct the key. Now Alice is protected against any one malicious person, and Bob is protected against losing all of Alice’s data after her run-in with the truck. Or, she could just store the different pieces, encrypted with each of the officer’s different public keys, on her own hard disk. That way, no one gets involved with key management until it becomes necessary.

Another backup scheme [188] uses smart cards (see Section 24.13) for the temporary escrow of keys. Alice can put the key to secure her hard drive onto the smart card and give it to Bob while she is away. Bob can use the card to get into Alice’s hard drive, but because the key is stored in the card Bob cannot learn it. And the system is bilaterally auditable: Bob can verify that the key will open Alice’s drive, and when Alice returns she can verify if Bob has used the key and how many times.

Such a scheme makes no sense for data transmission. On a secure telephone, the key should exist for the length of the call and no longer. For data storage, as just described, key escrow can be a good idea. I’ve lost about one key every five years, and my memory is better than most. If 200 million people were using cryptography, that same rate would equal 40 million lost keys per year. I keep copies of my house keys with a neighbor because I may lose mine. If house keys were like cryptographic keys, and I lost them, I could never get inside and recover my possessions, ever again. Just as I keep off-site backups of my data, it makes sense to keep backups of my data-encryption keys.

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