Cryptography: a Summary of the field for Engineers

Bennett Todd <>
30 November 2000

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Cryptography is a very old study, but since the advent of widespread use of computers in the last few decades, it has advanced at an enormous rate. Computers make trivial the cryptanalysis of all but one of the cryptographic algorithms that predate them (the One-time Pad). They also make practical the use of algorithms that are able to resist computer-assisted cryptanalysis effectively. However, inventing such algorithms is not a sport for amateurs; common sense can only be brought to bear on cryptography by people with the training to properly understand all the most advanced techniques known for computer-aided cryptanalysis.

What this means is that when we as engineers wish to apply cryptography to creating secure systems, we must confine our usage to well-known, well-analyzed algorithms and protocols. Fortunately this is no hindrance. This paper undertakes to survey the field of cryptography as it is applied today. This will be, however, a fairly brief and superficial survey, intended to introduce the jargon and concepts, and to touch on a few of the most important algorithms and protocols. Thoroughly treating this subject would require a book, and happily, that book has been written: it is Applied Cryptography, by Bruce Schneier.

2. Random bits

Before studying cryptographic specifics, I need to settle the matter of random bits, as they are used so frequently that they must be clearly understood for any subsequent discussion. For cryptographic purposes, random bits must be genuinely and truly random: there must be no way that an attacker can guess or predict them. In practice this means that no pseudo-random number generator can be used for their creation; they must come from basic sources. The favourite of all basic sources is radioactive decay; by sampling the noise produced from radioactive decay --- or, perhaps, other quantum sources such as the thermal fry of a reverse-biased semiconductor junction --- bits can be produced which are believed to be truly random, provably unpredictable and unguessable for fundamental physical reasons. However, the equipment to do this sort of thing is not widely available on common platforms, so practical systems end up using careful techniques to manage pools of randomness, feeding them with bits sampled from physical processes --- variations in rotational latency of hard disks, variations in timing of keyboard and mouse input events, etc. If your operating system does not provide you with a good source of random numbers as a builtin function (commonly /dev/random), you should pursue a source of random bits such as EGD, the Entropy-Gathering Daemon <URL:>.

3. Cryptographic Algorithms

Algorithms are the building blocks of cryptographic systems. They divide into several categories, each of which admits of a straightforward security analysis, and each of which is peopled by well-studied specimens, appropriate for use in deployed systems. In this section we survey the major categories of cryptographic algorithms, and so arm ourselves with the materials we need to study how they are put together into cryptographic protocols to be applied to practical problems.

3.1. One-time Pad

One-time pads are a singular category of cryptographic algorithm, as unlike any other they are provably secure, but only if properly used. And using them properly is so difficult that they are rarely practical for any real problem. A One-time pad is a variety of cypher: it translates plaintext into cyphertext using a key. It is a symmetric cypher, since the same key is used for encryption and decryption.

A one-time pad requires a large bulk of truly random bits --- the amount of key material needed is identical to the amount of plaintext you wish to encrypt. One-time pads can be expressed in any number of ways, but one reasonable approach in computer implementation is to take the plaintext and key material a byte at a time, and produce cyphertext by xor-ing each byte of plaintext with the corresponding byte of cyphertext. If --- and _only_ if --- the random bits used are truly random, then this is a perfect cypher, theoretically impossible to break, since all possible plaintexts of the same length are equally probable decryptions, and there is no way to tell which is correct.

But under no circumstances can any of the key material be generated using pseudo-random number generation algorithms, or re-used. That's the fatal problem with one-time pad; it requires so much key material that it is impractical for nearly all purposes.

3.2. Symmetric Cyphers

Symmetric cyphers use a simple fixed-length key to encrypt an arbitrary amount of plaintext onto the same amount of cyphertext. Many cryptographic protocols will compress the plaintext first, but that is not necessary to protect the security of a good cypher, and since since there are a nice assortment of well-analyzed symmetric cyphers available to choose from, and several more under development, the only good reason to compress plaintext before encyphering is that that is your only chance to do so; the output of a good cypher cannot be compressed.

Good symmetric cyphers cannot be usefully attacked in any way other than brute force search of the key space; neither known-plaintext nor chosen-plaintext attacks make them more approachable. So the goals in picking a good symmetric cypher are simple: you want one that uses a large enough key; you want one that has been very well analyzed; and often you'd prefer one that ones quicker over one that runs slower. DES, the Digital Encryption Standard, is probably the best-analyzed symmetric cypher today, but it's not terribly fast in software, and it was crippled during its design to ensure that it only had a 56-bit key, which is not adequate for many purposes today. Triple-DES, with a 112-bit key length, is adequately strong, and is believed to be no weaker than DES, so it may be the strongest cypher available. But it's terribly slow by comparison with the other reasonable candidates. IDEA uses a 128-bit key, which is plenty, but it is patented, so people try to avoid it in new designs. Blowfish is a nice fast cypher, and has a variable key length; 128-bit keyed blowfish as a fine choice for new work.

There are plenty of other cyphers out there, many of which have a good amount of analysis backing them. A new batch is coming out now, as a result of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) effort, which is aiming to produce an officially standardized successor to DES.

3.3. Assymetric Cyphers (Public Key)

Assymetric cyphers are a relatively recent breed. They pull off an unexpected mathematical trick: they use two keys, one of which encrypts and the other of which decrypts. They are called Public Key systems because the encryption key can be published, and people can encrypt messages with it, and knowing only the public key it remains impractical to decypher the messages --- that can only be done using the secret key.

The assymetric cyphers share some common features that influence their use in cryptographic protocols and systems designs. In particular, they are very, very slow compared to symmetric cyphers, and so are never used for encrypting bulk volumes of plaintext; instead, they are used to encrypt relatively short chunks of random bits for session keys, or cryptographic hashes of plaintext.

The best-analyzed assymetric cypher is probably RSA, named for the initials of its inventors, Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman. It is based on the difficulty of factoring numbers that are the product of two large primes. As the difficulty of factoring is considerably less than the difficulty of brute-force searching through all possible bit-strings of a given length, RSA requires dramatically longer keys. While today nobody has factored a 1024-bit composite of two large primes, it's not beyond the bounds of reason that that might happen in the forseeable future; many advocate using 2048-bit RSA keys, and I've heard the argument made that under some reasonable-sounding assumptions that size may be roughly comparable in strength to 128-bit symmetric cypher keys. RSA was patented in the US; however, the patent (US Patent 4,405,829), which expired on Sep. 20, 2000, was officially abandoned by RSA Data Security effective September 6, 2000 <URL:>, so RSA can now be used in all settings.

The next most widely used public key cryptosystem is probably Diffie-Hellman, which is somewhat older, and its patent has expired. It is based on discrete logarithms. As far as I know, its key size scales more or less similarly to RSA. It enjoyed a brief spasm of popularity during the interval in which its patent had expired and RSA's patent had not. It's not clear whether its popularity will remain as strong after, although it will be carried forward by some protocols that grew during that interval, notably PGP as implemented in PGP Version 5 and GnuPG, as well as ssh protocol version 2 as implemented by ssh2, OpenSSH, and lsh.

A varient on Diffie-Hellman uses the same problem, discrete logarithms, over elliptic curves. Some claim that this variation is so much more resistant to cryptanalysis that it makes it safe to use with much, much smaller keys, and so it is being considered for use in some embedded applications. Others argue that the mathematics of elliptic curves aren't adequately studied, and there is no grounds for confidence that with adequate study they won't be found to be as easy to crack as regular discrete logarithms --- which would make all the short keys suddenly far weaker.

The great appeal to RSA is the massive amount of study that has gone into factoring composites of large primes; it has been so extensively studied that many are optimistic that they will never be found trivial to factor. But until some assymetric cypher has its basic problem _proven_ to be intractible --- and such proofs have not appeared to date --- using any of them will be a gamble. But such a convenient one!

3.4. Cryptographic Hashes

The final major category of cryptographic algorithms are the Hashes. There are a few of them, all of which share common features. They are fed a plaintext, and produce a hash, which is a fixed-size bit string. The string is sufficiently long to render the chance of an accidental collision safely neglible. 128 bits is adequate for many purposes, for much the same reasons as 128 bits are sufficient for symmetric cyphers, in both cases the only attack for a good algorithm is a brute force search, each trial of which has a chance of only one in two to the keylength. Two raised to the 128th power is plenty big for many settings. However, the Birthday Attack makes a case for larger hashes in some applications; many people like to go with 160 bits or more. The Birthday Attack is inspired by the entertaining observation that with 23 people in a room, the odds are better than even that two of them have the same birthday. In other words, in applications where all an attacker must do is construct a pair of distinct strings with the same hash, it may be worth considering longer hashes rather than shorter ones.

An attack on a crypto hash consists of finding two messages that produce the same hash. Depending on the application one of the messages may be fixed, and the search might be to find the second. The pigeonhole principle guarantees that vast numbers of such pairs exist, but the long odds make them hard to find. A successful attack would consist of an algorithm that can find such a collision more easily than brute force, trying random texts until a match is found.

Cryptographic hashes not only guarantee that collisions cannot be found, they also ensure that a hash reveals nothing about the plaintext used to generate it.

One common feature of crypto hashes is that a single bit change in the input will on the average flip about half the bits in the output.

For some years the most popular crypto hash was MD5, a Message Digest algorithm invented by Ron Rivest and published as RFC 1321. It's still not a bad choice, but some believe that there is room to worry thanks to research results, which have found ways to attack various "weakened" varients of MD5. While MD5 has so far not been successfully attacked, many analysts would feel more comfortable if weakened variations were stronger than they turn out to be, so some have turned to other cryptographic hashes. And besides, MD5 only produces 128 bits. One of the more popular successors is SHA-1, specified by publication FIPS-180-1 by NIST. It produces a 160-bit output.

4. Protocols

Cryptographic Protocols are the assembled specifications describing how a series of applications of various cryptographic algorithms, taken together with steps such as generating some random bits, and passing various messages, are used to achieve a specific end.

Designing good cryptographic protocols is very nearly as fraught as designing sound crypto algorithms; except for the very simplest applications, it's wise to try to use an existing, well-studied protocol rather than inventing a new one.

4.1. Simple Protocols

The very simplest protocols are straightforward applications of algorithms, and can be trivially seen to deliver whatever benefits they claim, with any weaknesses made obvious by their simplicity. This can be a safe field for inventing new cryptographic protocols; I illustrate with one I invented a few years ago.

4.1.1. Bulk Encryption with Public Key management

One of the more obvious combinations of algorithms is used whenever public key encryption is being applied for key management. As mentioned earlier, public key algorithms are prohibitively slow. So instead of running a public key encryption over an entire body of plaintext, standard practice is to generate a random key with a good source of random bits, use a nice fast symmetric cypher to encrypt the plaintext using that random key (called a session key), and then encrypt the session key with a public-key algorithm and append that to the message. The recipient can use the public key algorithm, with their secret key, to retrieve the session key, which they can then use to decrypt the message. This protocol combines the performance advantages of symmetric cyphers with the key management features of assymetric cyphers.

4.1.2. Digital signatures

Public key systems can be used to digitally sign a file. The standard protocol for this job is to run a crypto hash over the file, then encrypt the resulting (comparatively small, fixed-size) hash with the secret key. As long as the secret key is kept properly confidential, nobody else would be able to produce the result: a bit string which when decrypted with the public key of the signer, matches the crypto checksum of the document.

4.1.3. S/Key

S/Key is an elegant and simple protocol for secure authentication. It allows a simple implementation of one-time passwords, so that a user can authenticate themselves over an insecure link, and an intruder intercepting the traffic cannot learn out to authenticate themselves for future connections. Since it requires no link encryption, it's interoperable with many standard network clients, e.g. unmodified telnet; but since there's no modification to the low-level protocol it's impossible for it to protect against active man-in-the-middle attacks.

The S/Key protocol is delightful in its simplicity. In essence, the user chooses a passphrase, and in an offline setup step the server is equipped with the output of running that passphrase through a cryptographic checksum, like e.g. MD5, many times. In other words the user's passphrase is fed to MD5, and the 128-bit checksum output by that is then used as the input for another pass through MD5, and so on, for some agreed-on count, e.g. 100 times through. When you wish to authenticate, the server presents the count, e.g. 100, and the user replies with the result of running the original passphrase through MD5 one fewer times, e.g. 99. The server can validate that the user really must know their passphrase by running one more MD5 and confirming that the result matches the saved value; if it does, then the 99-count checksum is saved, replacing the previous 100-count checksum, and so the next challenge will be 99. Thus the initial count determines how many logins are possible before the system must be re-initialized. As a special convenience of this solution, if the user doesn't have a portable S/Key calculator, e.g. on a pocket computer, then the user can carry a printed card with e.g. 100 pre-computed responses in their wallet and use that as an authentication token. To make it easier for the user to enter the hash, S/Key encodes it using a specially chosen dictionary of 4096 short simple words. This dictionary has been standardized by RFC 1751.

4.1.4. Printed Crypto Hash for Signatures

This was a protocol of my own invention, and illustrates the sort of simplicity that can win in particular settings. At a previous job, I was asked to recommend an encryption system to be used for passing authorized financial transactions. Specifically, the transactions were being passed in a hardcopy, which an authorized corporate officer signed; the recipient of the hardcopy recognized the signature, and so approved the transaction. The wish was to reproduce the trust and authorization model, while passing digital information on a floppy diskette, simply to eliminate the slow and error-prone data re-entry. What I proposed was a pair of standalone, secured workstations, in the two officers' offices. The sender inserted the diskette, reviewed the document on it, and printed a sticker containing the MD5 hash of that document, rendered using the RFC 1751 text representation. That sticker was attached to the diskette, then the sender wrote their signature on the sticker. The recipient could stick to the protocol they knew and approved of, recognizing the sender's physical signature, and could easily compare the printed checksum with one computed on their workstation.

Certainly cryptographic systems can deliver better, harder-to-forge verification than a hand-written signature, but unless extraordinary care is taken in key management, the resulting systems can introduce new possibilities for fraud. This system had the advantage of precisely reproducing their accustomed authorization model, extending it to a digital document. It doesn't reduce risks over previous practice, but that was not a design goal. It does allow passing a machine-readable document with the precise same risks as previous practice, risks which were understood, accepted, and approved by the participants.

4.2. Intermediate Protocols

These are protocols of medium complexity. They end up being real workhorses in secure systems design; they do substantial and useful jobs very well, and yet are fairly simple to deploy and use. At this level of complexity it becomes very very desireable not to redesign or reimplement cryptographic systems, but reuse existing well-analyzed packages. A review of the history of these packages will show why: even the best designs end up getting revised and refined, and every implementation gets bugs fixed, often in the neighborhood of the random number source.

4.2.1. SSH

Ssh, the Secure Shell, neatly replaces the Berkeley rsh, rlogin, and rcp family with functionally equivalent, very secure utilities. The essential and invarient feature of the ssh protocol is that it begins by negotiating a secure link between the two ends, before any authentication starts. There are a range of cyphers available. In version one of the protocol, the session key negotiation and public key authentication can only be done with RSA; version 2 of the protocol supports DSA for key exchange. Both versions offer optional compression. In addition to providing the functionality offered by rsh, rlogin, and rcp, ssh also supports port forwarding which can be a valuable building block, and has special support for transparently forwarding X11 connections including support for Xauthority.

<URL:> contains links to many ssh implementations; these days I use OpenSSH, available from <URL:>, which implements both protocols, versions 1 and 2.

4.2.2. PGP

PGP is a workhorse tool for file encryption. It's specifically oriented to email encryption, and integration is available with many mail user agents, but PGP is very convenient as a general-purpose file encryption tool. It uses public key encryption with RSA, and in newer versions other public key algorithms including DSA and ElGamal; it supports symmetric encryption with IDEA, and in newer versions other algorithms including triple-DES, Blowfish, and CAST5. There are a few implementations available; these days I use GnuPG, available from <URL:>. As a historical note, PGP was the first widespread use of the RSA public key algorithm.

PGP is distinguished from other encryption systems in its support for Web Of Trust, an invention of PGP's original designer Philip Zimmermann. Web Of Trust is the most effective alternative so far invented to the more traditional Certification Authorities, for allowing people to get known-good public keys of strangers.

4.3. Elaborate Protocols

These are an even more extreme case where you want to stick to well-designed, well-respected protocols and implementations; these are quite complex and feature-rich. They also distinguish themselves by requiring rather more effort and complexity to set up and use. As in all engineering, complexity is the foe of reliability and correctness; when systems are more complex, there's more room for errors that can weaken or destroy the system. In the case of crypto protocols, this means you should be extra careful when setting up your first instance of a complex protocol, lest you inadvertently compromise your security through configuration error.

4.3.1. Kerberos

Kerberos is the oldest crypto protocol of its complexity still in use. In fact, it is only now emerging from years of comparative obscurity. It was designed at MIT, as part of Project Athena. Kerberos provides a distributed authentication protocol. The security model it implements allows a trusted server to provide authentication services for trusted clients (typically running a bare minimum of software). Kerberos cannot protect against compromised clients, since the client system receives the user's secret (a password) and performs the authentication protocol on the user's behalf. The protocol is fairly complex, intended to avoid use of public-key algorithms, to provide robust authentication over an untrusted network, and to allow good efficiency.

Kerberos is an interesting and distinctive protocol, because it was designed to use only one cryptographic algorithm, DES, and to use elaborate protocol fan-dancing to achieve the sorts of results that a modern design would achieve with an assymetric cypher. When Kerberos was designed, assymetric cyphers were quite new and little used, they were all restricted by patent, and they were all treated as non-exportable munitions by the US Federal Government.

4.3.2. SSL and TLS

SSL is Secure Socket Layer; it provides a cryptographically secure transport, with an interface designed to resemble the socket abstraction for network connections. This allows it to be used for easily creating secure versions of many different protocols. It was originally designed for HTTP, by Netscape, but has since been widely used for POP and IMAP, and more recently for protecting SMTP. TLS, for Transport Layer Security, is the newer version of the protocol specified by RFC 2246.

TLS can be deployed in two basically different ways, for any given protocol. It can be applied completely outside of and separate from the protocol it carries; this is how it is used with HTTP, to produce the hybrid protocol HTTPS, normally carried over port 443. For many applications in this style, the helper program stunnel, available from <URL:>, can allow you to provide the SSL-secured varient of the service using an unmodified daemon.

The alternative approach is architecturally preferable, but far more work to achieve, as it requires modifying the protocol specification to be secured, and modifying the clients and daemons that implement it; this approach introduces an option to explicitly negotiate turning on TLS protection in the middle of an established connection of the original protocol. The advantage of this approach is that, unlike the transparent tunnel approach described previously, this sort of protocol reengineering doesn't require assigning a separate port for the secured service.

OpenSSL <URL:> is the reference implementation of SSL and TLS these days, eclipsing all others. TLS incorporates just about every cryptographic algorithm that anyone ever uses for anything; you name it, it's in there. Fortunately, IDEA is not required, and the RSA patent has been abandoned, so TLS has become useable in nearly all settings. SSL and TLS use certificates, which are public keys with attached digital signatures from Certificate Authorities. These are kept in various formats based on X.509, and are fairly messy. While TLS supports anonymous Diffie-Hellman key exchange, this is not widely implemented on clients, so certificates really aren't optional for practical deployments. Likewise, TLS supports DSA keys and certificates, but as they aren't nearly as widely supported on clients as RSA, they aren't generally practical for any but private applications.

As a curiosity, there's an email encryption protocol, intended to try and compete with PGP, called S/MIME; as it uses X.509 certificates and signing authorities and all that, and of course any and every protocol it uses is included somewhere in the hodge-podge of TLS, the OpenSSL implementation also has support for doing S/MIME processing.

4.3.3. IPSec

Where SSL and TLS provide encryption up near the application level, implemented in daemons and clients, IPSec provides encryption below the application level, invisibly to application, in the networking part of the operating system. IPSec is pretty fiendishly complex, because the designers attempted to make it applicable for all network-level encryption. Today it's most widely used for creating Virtual Private Networks, VPNs; it is the only multi-vendor interoperable standard VPN protocol.

5. Legal issues

I only know about the situation in the US, so I'll speak on that a bit. If you're somewhere else, you should investigate whether the laws that apply to you are different.

Within the US, the regulations restricting export (and hence, to a large degree, use) of open source strong encryption have just about fallen down. There remains a claim that if you put strong encryption software up for open download over the internet, you should send an email somewhere to notify the federal government, but that only applies if you are the original author of that strong encryption software.

The remaining barriers to use of open source strong encryption are patents; the two relevant ones are the RSA patent, which was abandoned Sep. 6 2000, and the patent on IDEA, I don't know when it goes, don't much care, as IDEA has been superceded by non-patented cyphers for all applications.

A. Version and Date

This is version 1.4 of this document, last modified 2000-11-30.

B. Acknowledgements

This paper begain as a relatively short article posted in response to a question on the VPN mailing list. Tina Bird <> suggested expanding it into a standalone article.

Seth Arnold <> pointed out that I should mention the Birthday attack and its consequence on application of cryptographic hashes.

Pierre Abbat <> corrected an error I'd made, discrete logs over elliptic curves are working in groups, not fields.

Caskey <caskey@TECHNOCAGE.COM> pointed out that you don't factor large primes, you factor composites of large primes. I made that usage blunder in the final reference to factoring, now fixed.