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

Previous Table of Contents Next

8.9 Compromised Keys

All of the protocols, techniques, and algorithms in this book are secure only if the key (the private key in a public-key system) remains secret. If Alice’s key is lost, stolen, printed in the newspaper, or otherwise compromised, then all her security is gone.

If the compromised key was for a symmetric cryptosystem, Alice has to change her key and hope the actual damage was minimal. If it was a private key, she has bigger problems; her public key is probably on servers all over the network. And if Eve gets access to Alice’s private key, she can impersonate her on the network: reading encrypted mail, signing correspondence, entering into contracts, and so forth. Eve can, effectively, become Alice.

It is vital that news of a private key’s compromise propagate quickly throughout the network. Any databases of public keys must immediately be notified that a particular private key has been compromised, lest some unsuspecting person encrypt a message in that compromised key.

One hopes Alice knows when her key was compromised. If a KDC is managing the keys, Alice should notify it that her key has been compromised. If there is no KDC, then she should notify all correspondents who might receive messages from her. Someone should publicize the fact that any message received after her key was lost is suspect, and that no one should send messages to Alice with the associated public key. The application should be using some sort of timestamp, and then users can determine which messages are legitimate and which are suspect.

If Alice doesn’t know exactly when her key was compromised, things are more difficult. Alice may want to back out of a contract because the person who stole the key signed it instead of her. If the system allows this, then anyone can back out of a contract by claiming that his key was compromised before it was signed. It has to be a matter for an adjudicator to decide.

This is a serious problem and brings to light the dangers of Alice tying all of her identity to a single key. It would be better for Alice to have different keys for different applications—just as she has different physical keys in her pocket for different locks. Other solutions to this problem involve biometrics, limits on what can be done with a key, time delays, and countersigning.

These procedures and tips are hardly optimal, but are the best we can do. The moral of the story is to protect keys, and protect private keys above all else.

8.10 Lifetime of Keys

No encryption key should be used for an indefinite period. It should expire automatically like passports and licenses. There are several reasons for this:

— The longer a key is used, the greater the chance that it will be compromised. People write keys down; people lose them. Accidents happen. If you use the same key for a year, there’s a far greater chance of compromise than if you use it for a day.
— The longer a key is used, the greater the loss if the key is compromised. If a key is used only to encrypt a single budgetary document on a file server, then the loss of the key means only the compromise of that document. If the same key is used to encrypt all the budgetary information on the file server, then its loss is much more devastating.
— The longer a key is used, the greater the temptation for someone to spend the effort necessary to break it—even if that effort is a brute-force attack. Breaking a key shared between two military units for a day would enable someone to read and fabricate messages between those units for that day. Breaking a key shared by an entire military command structure for a year would enable that same person to read and fabricate messages throughout the world for a year. In our budget-conscious, post-Cold War world, which key would you choose to attack?
— It is generally easier to do cryptanalysis with more ciphertext encrypted with the same key.

For any cryptographic application, there must be a policy that determines the permitted lifetime of a key. Different keys may have different lifetimes. For a connection-based system, like a telephone, it makes sense to use a key for the length of the telephone call and to use a new one with each call.

Systems on dedicated communications channels are not as obvious. Keys should have relatively short lifetimes, depending on the value of the data and the amount of data encrypted during a given period. The key for a gigabit-per-second communications link might have to be changed more often than the key for a 9600-baud modem link. Assuming there is an efficient method of transferring new keys, session keys should be changed at least daily.

Key-encryption keys don’t have to be replaced as frequently. They are used only occasionally (roughly once per day) for key exchange. This generates little ciphertext for a cryptanalyst to work with, and the corresponding plaintext has no particular form. However, if a key-encryption key is compromised, the potential loss is extreme: all communications encrypted with every key encrypted with the key-encryption key. In some applications, key-encryption keys are replaced only once a month or once a year. You have to balance the inherent danger in keeping a key around for a while with the inherent danger in distributing a new one.

Encryption keys used to encrypt data files for storage cannot be changed often. The files may sit encrypted on disk for months or years before someone needs them again. Decrypting them and re-encrypting them with a new key every day doesn’t enhance security in any way; it just gives a cryptanalyst more to work with. One solution might be to encrypt each file with a unique file key, and then encrypt all the file keys with a key-encryption key. The key-encryption key should then be either memorized or stored in a secure location, perhaps in a safe somewhere. Of course, losing this key would mean losing all the individual file keys.

Private keys for public-key cryptography applications have varying lifetimes, depending on the application. Private keys used for digital signatures and proofs of identity may have to last years (even a lifetime). Private keys used for coin-flipping protocols can be discarded immediately after the protocol is completed. Even if a key’s security is expected to last a lifetime, it may be prudent to change the key every couple of years. The private keys in many networks are good only for two years; after that the user must get a new private key. The old key would still have to remain secret, in case the user needed to verify a signature from that period. But the new key would be used to sign new documents, reducing the number of signed documents a cryptanalyst would have for an attack.

8.11 Destroying Keys

Given that keys must be replaced regularly, old keys must be destroyed. Old keys are valuable, even if they are never used again. With them, an adversary can read old messages encrypted with those keys [65].

Keys must be destroyed securely (see Section 10.9). If the key is written on paper, the paper should be shredded or burned. Be careful to use a high-quality shredder; many lousy shredders are on the market. Algorithms in this book are secure against brute-force attacks costing millions of dollars and taking millions of years. If an adversary can recover your key by taking a bag of shredded documents from your trash and paying 100 unemployed workers in some backwater country ten cents per hour for a year to piece the shredded pages together, that would be $26,000 well spent.

If the key is in a hardware EEPROM, the key should be overwritten multiple times. If the key is in a hardware EPROM or PROM, the chip should be smashed into tiny bits and scattered to the four winds. If the key is stored on a computer disk, the actual bits of the storage should be overwritten multiple times (see Section 10.9) or the disk should be shredded.

A potential problem is that, in a computer, keys can be easily copied and stored in multiple locations. Any computer that does its own memory management, constantly swapping programs in and out of memory, exacerbates the problem. There is no way to ensure that successful key erasure has taken place in the computer, especially if the computer’s operating system controls the erasure process. The more paranoid among you should consider writing a special erasure program that scans all disks looking for copies of the key’s bit pattern on unused blocks and then erases those blocks. Also remember to erase the contents of any temporary, or “swap,” files.

8.12 Public-Key Key Management

Public-key cryptography makes key management easier, but it has its own unique problems. Each person has only one public key, regardless of the number of people on the network. If Alice wants to send a message to Bob, she has to get Bob’s public key. She can go about this several ways:

— She can get it from Bob.
— She can get it from a centralized database.
— She can get it from her own private database.

Section 2.5 discussed a number of possible attacks against public-key cryptography, based on Mallory substituting his key for Bob’s. The scenario is that Alice wants to send a message to Bob. She goes to the public-key database and gets Bob’s public key. But Mallory, who is sneaky, has substituted his own key for Bob’s. (If Alice asks Bob directly, Mallory has to intercept Bob’s transmission and substitute his key for Bob’s.) Alice encrypts her message in Mallory’s key and sends it to Bob. Mallory intercepts the message, decrypts it, and reads it. He re-encrypts it with Bob’s real key and sends it on to Bob. Neither Alice nor Bob is the wiser.

Previous Table of Contents Next
[an error occurred while processing this directive]