Network Working Group R. Zuccherato
Request for Comments: 2785 Entrust Technologies
Category: Informational March 2000
Methods for Avoiding the "SmallSubgroup" Attacks on the
DiffieHellman Key Agreement Method for S/MIME
Status of this Memo
This memo provides information for the Internet community. It does
not specify an Internet standard of any kind. Distribution of this
memo is unlimited.
Copyright Notice
Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2000). All Rights Reserved.
Abstract
In some circumstances the use of the DiffieHellman key agreement
scheme in a prime order subgroup of a large prime p is vulnerable to
certain attacks known as "smallsubgroup" attacks. Methods exist,
however, to prevent these attacks. This document will describe the
situations relevant to implementations of S/MIME version 3 in which
protection is necessary and the methods that can be used to prevent
these attacks.
1. Introduction
This document will describe those situations in which protection from
"smallsubgroup" type attacks is necessary when using DiffieHellman
key agreement [RFC2631] in implementations of S/MIME version 3
[RFC2630, RFC2633]. Thus, the ephemeralstatic and staticstatic
modes of DiffieHellman will be focused on. Some possible nonS/MIME
usages of CMS are also considered, though with less emphasis than the
cases arising in S/MIME. The situations for which protection is
necessary are those in which an attacker could determine a
substantial portion (i.e. more than a few bits) of a user's private
key.
Protecting oneself from these attacks involves certain costs. These
costs may include additional processing time either when a public key
is certified or a shared secret key is derived, increased parameter
generation time, and possibly the licensing of encumbered
Zuccherato Informational [Page 1]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
technologies. All of these factors must be considered when deciding
whether or not to protect oneself from these attacks, or whether to
engineer the application so that protection is not necessary.
We will not consider "attacks" where the other party in the key
agreement merely forces the shared secret value to be "weak" (i.e.
from a small set of possible values) without attempting to compromise
the private key. It is not worth the effort to attempt to prevent
these attacks since the other party in the key agreement gets the
shared secret and can simply make the plaintext public.
The methods described in this memo may also be used to provide
protection from similar attacks on elliptic curve based Diffie
Hellman.
1.1 Notation
In this document we will use the same notation as in [RFC2631]. In
particular the shared secret ZZ is generated as follows:
ZZ = g ^ (xb * xa) mod p
Note that the individual parties actually perform the computations:
ZZ = (yb ^ xa) mod p = (ya ^ xb) mod p
where ^ denotes exponentiation.
ya is Party A's public key; ya = g ^ xa mod p
yb is Party B's public key; yb = g ^ xb mod p
xa is Party A's private key; xa is in the interval [2, (q  2)]
xb is Party B's private key; xb is in the interval [2, (q  2)]
p is a large prime
g = h^((p1)/q) mod p, where
h is any integer with 1 < h < p1 such that h^((p1)/q) mod p > 1
(g has order q mod p)
q is a large prime
j a large integer such that p=q*j + 1
In this discussion, a "static" public key is one that is certified
and is used for more than one key agreement, and an "ephemeral"
public key is one that is not certified but is used only one time.
The order of an integer y modulo p is the smallest value of x greater
than 1 such that y^x mod p = 1.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 2]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
1.2 Brief Description of Attack
For a complete description of these attacks see [LAW] and [LIM].
If the other party in an execution of the DiffieHellman key
agreement method has a public key not of the form described above,
but of small order (where small means less than q) then he/she may be
able to obtain information about the user's private key. In
particular, if information on whether or not a given decryption was
successful is available, if ciphertext encrypted with the agreed upon
key is available, or if a MAC computed with the agreed upon key is
available, information about the user's private key can be obtained.
Assume Party A has a valid public key ya and that Party B has a
public key yb that is not of the form described in Section 1.1,
rather yb has order r, where r is much less than q. Thus yb^r=1 mod
p. Now, when Party A produces ZZ as yb^xa mod p, there will only be
r possible values for ZZ instead of q3 possible values. At this
point Party B does not know the value ZZ, but may be able to
exhaustively search for it.
If Party A encrypts plaintext with this value and makes that
ciphertext available to Party B, Party B only needs to exhaustively
search through r possibilities to determine which key produced the
ciphertext. When the correct one is found, this gives information
about the value of xa modulo r. Similarly, if Party A uses ZZ to
decrypt a ciphertext and Party B is able to determine whether or not
decryption was performed correctly, then information about xa can be
obtained. The actual number of messages that must be sent or
received for these attacks to be successful will depend on the
structure of the prime p. However, it is not unreasonable to expect
that the entire private key could be determined after as few as one
hundred messages.
A similar attack can be mounted if Party B chooses a public key of
the form yb=g^xb*f, where f is an element of small order. In this
situation Party A will compute ZZ=yb^xa=g^(xa*xb)*f^xa mod p. Again,
Party B can compute g^(xa*xb) and can therefore exhaust the small
number of possible values of f^xa mod p to determine information
about xa.
An attack is also possible if Party B has a public key yb of order r
where r factors into small integers but is not necessarily a small
integer itself. In this case, the attacker needs to know the value
ZZ computed by Party A. From this value Party B can solve for Party
A's private key modulo r using the PohligHellman [PH] algorithm.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 3]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
However, this attack is not as practical as the cases already
presented, where information about the private key is recovered from
the *use* of ZZ, rather than ZZ itself, by exhaustive search.
2. Situations Where Protection Is Necessary
This section describes the situations in which the sender of a
message should obtain protection against this type of attack and also
those situations in which the receiver of a message should obtain
protection. Each entity may decide independently whether it requires
protection from these attacks.
This discussion assumes that the recipient's key pair is static, as
is always the case in [RFC2631].
2.1 Message Sender
This section describes situations in which the message sender should
be protected.
If the sender's key is ephemeral, (i.e. ephemeralstatic Diffie
Hellman is being used), then no protection is necessary. In this
situation only the recipients of the message can obtain the plaintext
and corresponding ciphertext and therefore determine information
about the private key using the "smallsubgroup" attacks. However,
the recipients can always decrypt the message and since the sender's
key is ephemeral, even if the recipient can learn the entire private
key no other messages are at risk. Notice here that if two or more
recipients have selected the same domain parameters (p,q,g) then the
same ephemeral public key can be used for all of them. Since the key
is ephemeral and only associated with a message that the recipients
can already decrypt, no interesting attacks are possible.
If the sender's key is static (i.e. staticstatic DiffieHellman is
being used), then protection is necessary because in this situation a
recipient mounting a smallsubgroup attack may be able to obtain the
plaintext from another recipient (perhaps one with a valid public key
also controlled by the recipient) and therefore could obtain
information about the private key. Moreover, the attacker does not
need to know the plaintext to test whether a key is correct, provided
that the plaintext has sufficient redundancy (e.g., ASCII). This
information could then be used to attack other messages protected
with the same static key.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 4]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
2.2 Message Recipient
This section describes situations in which the message recipient
should be protected.
If absolutely no information on the decryption of the ciphertext is
available to any other party than the recipient, then protection is
not necessary because this attack requires information on whether the
decryption was successful to be sent to the attacker. So, no
protective measures are necessary if the implementation ensures that
no information about the decryption can leak out. However,
protection may be warranted if human users may give this information
to the sender via out of band means (e.g. through telephone
conversations).
If information on the decryption is available to any other party,
then protection is necessary. In particular, protection is necessary
if any protocol event allows any other party to conclude that
decryption was successful. Such events include replies and returning
signed receipts.
3. Methods Of Protection
This section describes five protective measures that senders and
recipients of messages can use to protect themselves from "small
subgroup" attacks.
Implementers should note that some of the procedures described in
this section may be the subject of patents or pending patents.
3.1 Public Key Validation
This method is described in Section 2.1.5 of [RFC2631], and its
description is repeated here. If this method is used, it should be
used to validate public keys of the other party prior to computing
the shared secret ZZ. The public key to be validated is y.
1. Verify that y lies within the interval [2,p1]. If it does not,
the key is invalid.
2. Compute y^q mod p. If the result == 1, the key is valid.
Otherwise the key is invalid.
3.2 CA Performs Public Key Validation
The Certification Authority (CA) could perform the Public Key
Validation method described in Section 3.1 prior to signing and
issuing a certificate containing a DiffieHellman public key. In
this way, any party using the public key can be assured that a
Zuccherato Informational [Page 5]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
trusted third party has already performed the key validation process.
This method is only viable for static public keys. When Static
Static DiffieHellman is employed, both the sender and recipient are
protected when the CA has performed public key validation. However,
when EphemeralStatic DiffieHellman is employed, only the sender can
be protected by having the CA perform public key validation. Since
the sender generates an ephemeral public key, the CA cannot perform
the validation on that public key.
In the case of a static public key a method must exist to assure the
user that the CA has actually performed this verification. The CA
can notify certificate users that it has performed the validation by
reference to the CA's Certificate Policy (CP) and Certification
Practice Statement (CPS) [RFC2527] or through extensions in the
certificate.
3.3 Choice of Prime p
The prime p could be chosen such that p1=2*q*k where k is a large
prime or is the product of large primes (large means greater than or
equal to q). This will prevent an attacker from being able to find
an element (other than 1 and p1) of small order modulo p, thus
thwarting the smallsubgroup attack. One method to produce primes of
this form is to run the prime generation algorithm multiple times
until an appropriate prime is obtained. As an example, the value of
k could be tested for primality. If k is prime, then the value of p
could be accepted, otherwise the prime generation algorithm would be
run again, until a value of p is produced with k prime.
However, since with primes of this form there is still an element of
order 2 (i.e. p1), one bit of the private key could still be lost.
Thus, this method may not be appropriate in circumstances where the
loss of a single bit of the private key is a concern.
Another method to produce primes of this form is to choose the prime
p such that p = 2*q*k + 1 where k is small (i.e. only a few bits). In
this case, the leakage due to a small subgroup attack will be only a
few bits. Again, this would not be appropriate for circumstances
where the loss of even a few bits of the private key is a concern. In
this approach, q is large. Note that in DSA, q is limited to 160
bits for performance reasons, but need not be the case for Diffie
Hellman.
Additionally, other methods (i.e. public key validation) can be
combined with this method in order to prevent the loss of a few bits
of the private key.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 6]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
3.4 Compatible Cofactor Exponentiation
This method of protection is specified in [P1363] and [KALISKI]. It
involves modifying the computation of ZZ by including j (the
cofactor) in the computations and is compatible with ordinary
DiffieHellman when both parties' public keys are valid. If a
party's public key is invalid, then the resulting ZZ will either be 1
or an element of order q; the small subgroup elements will either be
detected or cancelled. This method requires that gcd(j,q)=1.
Instead of computing ZZ as ZZ=yb^xa mod p, Party A would compute it
as ZZ=(yb^j)^c mod p where c=j^(1)*xa mod q. (Similarly for Party
B.)
If the resulting value ZZ satisfies ZZ==1, then the key agreement
should be abandoned because the public key being used is invalid.
Note that when j is larger than q, as is usually the case with
DiffieHellman, this method is less efficient than the method of
Section 3.1.
3.5 Noncompatible Cofactor Exponentiation
This method of protection is specified in [P1363]. Similar to the
method of Section 3.4, it involves modifying the computation of ZZ by
including j (the cofactor) in the computations. If a party's public
key is invalid, then the resulting ZZ will either be 1 or an element
of order q; the small subgroup elements will either be detected or
cancelled. This method requires that gcd(j,q)=1.
Instead of computing ZZ as ZZ=yb^xa mod p, Party A would compute it
as ZZ=(yb^j)^xa mod p. (Similarly for Party B.) However, with this
method the resulting ZZ value is different from what is computed in
[RFC2631] and therefore is not interoperable with implementations
conformant to [RFC2631].
If the resulting value ZZ satisfies ZZ==1, then the key agreement
should be abandoned because the public key being used is invalid.
Note that when j is larger than q, as is usually the case with
DiffieHellman, this method is less efficient than the method of
Section 3.1.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 7]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
4. EphemeralEphemeral Key Agreement
This situation is when both the sender and recipient of a message are
using ephemeral keys. While this situation is not possible in
S/MIME, it might be used in other protocol environments. Thus we
will briefly discuss protection for this case as well.
Implementers should note that some of the procedures described in
this section may be the subject of patents or pending patents.
Ephemeralephemeral key agreement gives an attacker more flexibility
since both parties' public keys can be changed and they can be
coerced into computing the same key from a small space. However, in
the ephemeralstatic case, only the sender's public key can be
changed, and only the recipient can be coerced by an outside attacker
into computing a key from a small space.
Thus, in some ephemeralephemeral key agreements protection may be
necessary for both entities. One possibility is that the attacker
could modify both parties' public key so as to make their shared key
predictable. For example, the attacker could replace both ya and yb
with some element of small order, say 1. Then, with a certain
probability, both the sender and receiver would compute the same
shared value that comes from some small, easily exhaustible set.
Note that in this situation if protection was obtained from the
methods of Section 3.3, then each user must ensure that the other
party's public key does not come from the small set of elements of
small order. This can be done either by checking a list of such
elements, or by additionally applying the methods of Sections 3.1,
3.4 or 3.5.
Protection from these attacks is not necessary however if the other
party's ephemeral public key has been authenticated. The
authentication may be in the form of a signature, MAC, or any other
integrity protection mechanism. An example of this is in the
StationToStation protocol [STS]. Since the owner authenticates the
public key, a third party cannot modify it and therefore cannot mount
an attack. Thus, the only person that could attack an entity's
private key is the other authenticated entity in the key agreement.
However, since both public keys are ephemeral, they only protect the
current session that the attacker would have access to anyway.
5. Security Considerations
This entire document addresses security considerations in the
implementation of DiffieHellman key agreement.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 8]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
6. Intellectual Property Rights
The IETF takes no position regarding the validity or scope of any
intellectual property or other rights that might be claimed to
pertain to the implementation or use of the technology described in
this document or the extent to which any license under such rights
might or might not be available; neither does it represent that it
has made any effort to identify any such rights. Information on the
IETF's procedures with respect to rights in standardstrack and
standardsrelated documentation can be found in BCP11. Copies of
claims of rights made available for publication and any assurances of
licenses to be made available, or the result of an attempt made to
obtain a general license or permission for the use of such
proprietary rights by implementors or users of this specification can
be obtained from the IETF Secretariat.
The IETF invites any interested party to bring to its attention any
copyrights, patents or patent applications, or other proprietary
rights which may cover technology that may be required to practice
this standard. Please address the information to the IETF Executive
Director.
7. References
[KALISKI] B.S. Kaliski, Jr., "Compatible cofactor multiplication for
DiffieHellman primitives", Electronics Letters, vol. 34,
no. 25, December 10, 1998, pp. 23962397.
[LAW] L. Law, A. Menezes, M. Qu, J. Solinas and S. Vanstone, "An
efficient protocol for authenticated key agreement",
Technical report CORR 9805, University of Waterloo, 1998.
[LIM] C.H. Lim and P.J. Lee, "A key recovery attack on discrete
log based schemes using a prime order subgroup", B.S.
Kaliski, Jr., editor, Advances in Cryptology  Crypto '97,
Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 1295, 1997,
SpringerVerlag, pp. 249263.
[P1363] IEEE P1363, Standard Specifications for Public Key
Cryptography, 1998, work in progress.
[PH] S.C Pohlig and M.E. Hellman, "An improved algorithm for
computing logarithms over GF(p) and its cryptographic
significance", IEEE Transactions on Information Theory,
vol. 24, 1972, pp. 106110.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 9]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
[RFC2527] Chokhani, S. and W. Ford, "Internet X.509 Public Key
Infrastructure, Certificate Policy and Certification
Practices Framework", RFC 2527, March 1999.
[RFC2630] Housley, R., "Cryptographic Message Syntax", RFC 2630, June
1999.
[RFC2631] Rescorla, E., "DiffieHellman Key Agreement Method", RFC
2631, June 1999.
[RFC2633] Ramsdell, B., "S/MIME Version 3 Message Specification", RFC
2633, June 1999.
[STS] W. Diffie, P.C. van Oorschot and M. Wiener, "Authentication
and authenticated key exchanges", Designs, Codes and
Cryptography, vol. 2, 1992, pp. 107125.
8. Author's Address
Robert Zuccherato
Entrust Technologies
750 Heron Road
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1V 1A7
EMail: robert.zuccherato@entrust.com
Zuccherato Informational [Page 10]
RFC 2785 Methods for Avoiding "SmallSubgroup" Attacks March 2000
9. Full Copyright Statement
Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2000). All Rights Reserved.
This document and translations of it may be copied and furnished to
others, and derivative works that comment on or otherwise explain it
or assist in its implementation may be prepared, copied, published
and distributed, in whole or in part, without restriction of any
kind, provided that the above copyright notice and this paragraph are
included on all such copies and derivative works. However, this
document itself may not be modified in any way, such as by removing
the copyright notice or references to the Internet Society or other
Internet organizations, except as needed for the purpose of
developing Internet standards in which case the procedures for
copyrights defined in the Internet Standards process must be
followed, or as required to translate it into languages other than
English.
The limited permissions granted above are perpetual and will not be
revoked by the Internet Society or its successors or assigns.
This document and the information contained herein is provided on an
"AS IS" basis and THE INTERNET SOCIETY AND THE INTERNET ENGINEERING
TASK FORCE DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING
BUT NOT LIMITED TO ANY WARRANTY THAT THE USE OF THE INFORMATION
HEREIN WILL NOT INFRINGE ANY RIGHTS OR ANY IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF
MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.
Acknowledgement
Funding for the RFC Editor function is currently provided by the
Internet Society.
Zuccherato Informational [Page 11]

