Authenticated Key Exchanges

Authenticated Key Exchanges are an interesting and important building block in any protocol that aims to allow people to communicate privately over an untrusted medium (i.e. the Internet).

What’s an AKE?

At their core, Authenticated Key Exchanges (AKEs for short) combine two different classes of protocol.

  1. An authentication mechanism, such as a MAC or a digital signature.
  2. Key encapsulation, usually through some sort of Diffie-Hellman.

A simple example of an AKE is the modern TLS handshake, which uses digital signatures (X.509 certificates signed by certificate authorities) to sign ephemeral Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) public keys, which is then used to derive a shared secret to encrypt and authenticate network traffic.

I guess I should say “simple” with scare quotes. Cryptography is very much a “devil’s in the details” field, because my above explanation didn’t even encapsulate mutual-auth TLS or the underlying machinery of protocol negotiation. (Or the fact that non-forward-secret ciphersuites can be selected.)

AKEs get much more complicated, the more sophisticated your threat model becomes.

For example: Signal’s X3DH and Double Ratchet protocols are components of a very sophisticated AKE. Learn more about them here.

The IETF is working to standardize their own approach, called Messaging Layer Security (MLS), which uses a binary tree of ECDH handshakes to manage state and optimize group operations (called TreeKEM). You can learn more about IETF MLS here.

Password AKEs

Recently, a collection of cryptographers at the IETF’s Crypto Research Forum Group (CFRG) decided to hammer on a series of proposed Password-Authenticated Key Exchange (PAKE) protocols.

PAKEs come in two flavors: Balanced (mutually authenticated) and augmented (one side is a prover, the other is a verifier). Balanced PAKEs are good for encrypted tunnels where you control both endpoints (e.g. WiFi networks), whereas Augmented PAKEs are great for eliminating the risk of password theft in client-server applications, if the server gets hacked.

Ultimately, the CFRG settled on one balanced PAKE (CPace) and one augmented PAKE (OPAQUE).

Consequently, cryptographer Filippo Valsorda managed to implement CPace in 125 lines of Go, using Ristretto255.

Why So Complicated?

At the end of the day, an AKE is just a construction that combines key encapsulation with an authentication mechanism.

But how you combine these components together can vary wildly!

Some AKE designs (i.e. Dragonfly, in WPA3) are weaker than others; even if only in the sense of being difficult to implement in constant-time.

The reason there’s so many is that cryptographers tend to collectively decide which algorithms to recommend for standardization.

(n.b. There are a lot more block ciphers than DES, Blowfish, and AES to choose from! But ask a non-cryptographer to name five block ciphers and they’ll probably struggle.)

By Soatok

Security engineer with a fursona. Ask me about dholes or Diffie-Hellman!

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