Monthly Archives: May 2008

J-PAKE: From Dining Cryptographers to Jugglers

Password Authenticated Key Exchange (PAKE) is one of the central topics in cryptography. It aims to address a practical security problem: how to establish secure communication between two parties solely based on their shared password without requiring a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).

The solution to the above problem is very useful in practice — in fact, so useful that it spawns a lot “fights” over patents. Many techniques were patented, including the well-known Encrypted Key Exchange (EKE) and Simple Password Exponential Key Exchange (SPEKE). A secondary problem is technical; both the EKE and SPEKE protocols have subtle but worrying technical limitations (see the paper for details).

At the 16th Workshop on Security Protocols held in April 2008, Cambridge, UK, I presented a new solution (joint work with Peter Ryan) called Password Authenticated Key Exchange by Juggling (or J-PAKE). The essence of the protocol design inherits from the earlier work on solving the Dining Cryptographers problem; we adapted the same juggling technique to the two-party case to solve the PAKE problem. To our best knowledge, this design is significantly different from all past PAKE solutions.

Intuitively, the J-PAKE protocol works like a juggling game between two people — if we regard a public key as a “ball”. In round one, each person throws two ephemeral public keys (“balls”) to each other. In round 2, each person combines the available public keys and the password to form a new public key, and throws the new “ball” to each other.

After round 2, the two parties can securely compute a common session key, if they supplied the same passwords. Otherwise, the protocol leaks nothing more than: “the supplied passwords at two sides are not the same”. In other words, one can prove his knowledge of the password without revealing it. A Java implementation of the protocol on a MacBook Pro laptop shows that the total computation time at each side is merely 75 ms.

We hope this protocol is of usefulness to security engineers. For example, compared with SSL/TLS, J-PAKE is potentially much more resistant against phishing attacks, not to mention that it is PKI-free. Since this protocol is the result of an academic research project, we didn’t — and have no intention to — patent it. As explained in the paper, J-PAKE even has technical advantages over the patented EKE and SPEKE in terms of security, with comparable efficiency. It has been submitted as a follow-up to the possible future extension of IEEE P1363.2.

We believe the PAKE research is important and has strong practical relevance. This post is to facilitate discussions on this subject. The paper can be viewed here. Any comments or questions are welcome.


  • 2008-06-28: a crude J-PAKE demo source code (.java) by me. (link broken)
  • 2008-11-04: a more refined J-PAKE in C and OpenSSL by Ben Laurie.
  • 2008-11-11: possible applications of J-PAKE in VPN and browser by James.
  • 2009-02-08: public group parameters for 112-bit and 128-bit security can be found in the comments.
  • 2009-03-15: fixed the broken link to the old Java file. Here is the link to the Java demo code.
  • 2010-04-17: a journal version of the paper available on IACR. No technical change to the protocol.
  • 2010-10-25: the journal version of the paper is accepted to publish on the TCS journal – Springer Transactions on Computational Science, the special issue on “Security in Computing”, 2011.
  • 2010-11-25: Sebastien Martini reported an implementation issue of J-PAKE in OpenSSL and OpenSSH. The issue is not applicable to the Java demo code that I wrote. As stated in the last paragraph of p. 11 in the paper, one shall check the element lies within the specified group. Stefan Arentz implemented a fix in OpenSSL. Official OpenSSL and OpenSSH patches can be found here and here.
  • 2011-01-11: Mozilla built J-PAKE into the base product of Firefox 4 ( beta 8 and later). More details here.
  • 2012-01-18: Today, Mohsen Toorani uploadeda paper on IACR eprint to claim several attacks on J-PAKE. My response can be found here.
  • 2012-07-21: Phil Clay contributed a Java implementation of J-PAKE to bouncycastle.
  • 2013-02-24: J-PAKE included into bouncycastle 1.48.
  • 2013-03-28: a code example to show how to use J-PAKE in bouncycastle
  • 2013-05-21: Submitted two Internet Drafts to IETF (one on J-PAKE and the other one on Schnorr NIZK Proof)
  • 2013-12-30: a code example to show how to implement J-PAKE using Elliptic Curve (or ECDSA-like group setting)
  • 2014-04-17: J-PAKE included into VMware NSS Cryptographic Module
  • 2014-10-27: J-PAKE adopted by the ISO/IEC standard (11770-4) following the ISO/IEC SC27 meeting held in Mexico City, October 20-24, 2014
  • 2014-12-26: My response to Mohsen Toorani’s IEEE ISCC’14 paper “Security Analysis of J-PAKE”.
  • 2015-04-29: J-PAKE included into Python
  • 2015-05-08: Standardization of J-PAKE in ISO/IEC 11770-4 in process. The first working draft (WD1) passed reviews by ISO/IEC SC27 at Kuching Malaysia, May 5-8, 2015.
  • 2015-05-19: Here is an independent formal analysis of J-PAKE by other researchers published at Oakland’2015. Their results are consistent with the original J-PAKE paper.
  • 2015-05-30: J-PAKE included in BarcoSilex BA414E Public Key crypto engine
  • 2015-05-31: Firefox is upgrading Sync 1.1 (using J-PAKE to transfer a full-entropy AES key between sync devices) to new Sync 1.5 (using user-defined passwords as encryption keys). But Pale moon decides to stay with Sync 1.1.
  • 2015-07-28: the Thread Technical white paper is public. It describes a technique that securely enrols a new device to the network based on J-PAKE. The technique is used in Google Nest thermostat products.

PED vulnerability paper receives "Most Practical Paper" award at Oakland

In February, Steven Murdoch, Ross Anderson and I reported our findings on system-level failures of widely deployed PIN Entry Devices (PED) and the Chip and PIN scheme as a whole. Steven is in Oakland presenting the work described in our paper at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (slides).

We are very pleased that we are the recipients of the new “Most Practical Paper” award of the conference, given to “the paper most likely to immediately improve the security of current environments and systems”. Thanks to everyone who supported this work!

IEEE Security & Privacy Magazine Award

Twisty little passages, all alike

Last month, on the 4th April, I published a document describing how the Phorm system worked and blogged about what I thought of the scheme. The document had been run past Phorm’s technical people to ensure it was correct, but — it turns out — there were still a handful of errors in it. A number of helpful people pointed out that I’d misdescribed third-party cookies (which didn’t matter much because Phorm specifically uses first-party cookies), and I’d managed to reference RFC2695 rather than RFC2965 !

In my original document, I’d waved my hands a little bit about how the system worked if people had blocked cookies for specific domains, and so I swapped some more email with Phorm to better understand, and then published a revised version on 23rd April — so that the correct information would be available to accompany FIPR’s press release and paper on the various laws that the Phorm system breaks. However, there was one final thing that wasn’t dealt with by press time, and that’s now been explained to me….

The Phorm system does some of its tracking magic by redirecting browser requests using HTTP 307 responses. When this was first explained to me at the meeting with Phorm there were two redirections (a scan of my notes is here), but having thought about this for a while, I asked for it to be explained to me again later on, and it turned out that I had previously been misled, and that there were in fact three redirections (here’s my notes of this part of the meeting).

It now turns out, following my further emails with Phorm, that there are in fact FOUR redirections occurring! This is not because my notes are rubbish — but because Phorm have managed to recall more of the detail of their own system!

For full details of how I understand the system works (at least until some more detail comes to light), see the latest version of my explanatory document, but to give you a flavour of it, consider an example visit to

  • The user wants to visit, but their request does not contain a cookie (for with a Phorm unique identifier within it. They are redirected (ONE) by the Phorm system to
  • The user visits by following the redirection. If they do not have a Phorm identifier cookie, then they will be issued with a new identifier and redirected (TWO) elsewhere on
  • The user visits for the second time. If they still don’t have a Phorm identifier cookie then their IP address is marked as wishing to opt-out and they will be redirected to and they won’t be redirected again for at least 30 minutes. If they do have a cookie (or if they had one at the previous stage) they are redirected (THREE) to a special URL within
  • The user visits the special URL, which the Phorm system redirects to a fake version of that sets a cookie with their Phorm identifier in it, and redirects (FOUR) them to the URL they wanted to visit all along.

For the moment, this appears to be the grand total; there can be up to four redirections, and it is deducible from this description what happens if you refuse (or delete) cookies in the and domains. It is also apparent that if you resolve to that you’ll never get past the first redirection; and you will need to rely on the Phorm system spotting these repeated failures and turning off redirection for your IP address.

direct adjective: Straightforward in manner or conduct; upright, honest.

indirect adjective: Mechanism by which Phorm fools your system into accepting tracking cookies from third-party websites, even when those websites promise never to track you!

Hardened stateless session cookies

The root cause behind the last-but-one WordPress cookie debacle was that the authors invented their own password hashing and cookie generation scheme. This is generally a bad idea, since it’s hard even for experts to get these right. Instead, whenever possible, a well-studied proposal should be chosen. It is for this reason that I suggested the phpass library for password hashing, and the Fu et al. stateless session cookie proposal.

These choices would be a substantial improvement on the previous custom design (had they been implemented correctly), but I still was not quite satisfied. The Fu et al. scheme has the property that an attacker who can read the cryptographic key stored in the database can create spoofed cookies. Given the history of WordPress security, it seems likely that there will eventually be a vulnerability discovered which allows the key, which authenticates cookies, to be leaked.

It’s good practice in security engineering to design systems with the widest possible range of attacker capabilities in mind. I therefore designed a cookie scheme which would do all that the Fu et al. design did, but also maintained some of its security properties if the attacker has read-access to the authentication database and knows the cookie authentication key. I published a paper on this topic — Hardened stateless session cookies — at the 2008 Security Protocols Workshop.

The trick behind my scheme is to store the hash of the user’s password in the cookie, and the hash of that in the authentication database. This means that it’s possible for the server to verify cookies, but the authentication database doesn’t contain enough information to create a fake cookie. Thus an attacker with read-access to the database still needs to know the user’s password to log in, and that isn’t stored. There are some additional subtleties to resist different attacks, and those are described in the paper.

I hope this proposal will trigger discussion over this important problem and lead to improved cookie authentication schemes.