Best Practices and Non-obvious attacks


So why would it make sense to validate ECDH public keys?

  • The first thing you learn in any infosec class is to reject invalid inputs, and check return values for errors, even if there’s no obvious exploit in sight. Doing this is sometimes called “defense in depth” or “best practice”.
  • The point of Diffie-Hellman is that both key shares should equally contribute to the shared secret, so that the protocol doesn’t allow key control, a desirable attribute of any authenticated key agreement protocol, as discussed in this MQV paper. If the protocol allows a peer to force the shared secret to be zero, or more generally to lie in a subgroup, then the said peer can surreptitiously weaken the protocol’s security (objection: “but why would a peer be malicious?”).
  • Points in small subgroups will leak information on the other party’s private key, and can allow for invalid curve attacks, depending on the curve that is used.
  • It’s costless: adding a zero check is ten lines of code tops, which is unlikely to introduce new vulnerabilities nor to hurt performance.
  • It reduces the risk of non-obvious attacks. Take Signal’s protocol, for example. If Alice generates all-zero prekeys and identity key, and pushes them to the Signal’s servers, then all the peers who initiate a new session with Alice will encrypt their first message with the same key, derived from all-zero shared secrets—essentially, the first message will be in the clear for an eavesdropper. Alice can deny being malicious, arguing that her PRNG failed. That’s just an example scenario—granted, far-fetched—but there might be others, and checking for invalid keys is probably easier than proving that they will never be exploited.

The bottom line is that omitting key validation may be fine in many cases, but with today’s complex protocols and scenarios it’s just playing with fire.


We smell a rat.


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