Monthly Archives: March 2024

RIP Ross Anderson

Someone else will undoubtedly say it much better than I will here but one of us has to break the very sad news: Ross Anderson died yesterday.

His enthusiasm, his wide-spectrum intellectual curiosity and his engaging prose were unmatched. He stood up vigorously for the causes he believed in. He formed communities around the new topics he engaged with, from information hiding to fast software encryption, security economics, security and human behaviour and more. He served as an inspiring mentor for generations of graduate students at Cambridge—I know first hand, as I was fortunate enough to be admitted as his PhD student when he was still a freshly minted lecturer and had not graduated any students yet. I learnt my trade as a Cambridge Professor from him and will be forever grateful, as will dozens of my “academic brothers” who were also supervised by him, several of whom post regularly on this blog.

Ross, thank you so much for your lively, insightful and stimulating contributions to every subfield of security. You leave a big void that no one will be able to fill. I will miss you.


Owl, a new augmented password-authenticated key exchange protocol

In 2008, I wrote a blog to introduce J-PAKE, a password-authenticated key exchange (PAKE) protocol (joint work with Peter Ryan). The goal of that blog was to invite public scrutiny of J-PAKE. Sixteen years later, I am pleased to say that no attacks on J-PAKE have been found and that the protocol has been used in many real-world applications, e.g., Google Nest, ARM Mbed, Amazon Fire stick, Palemoon sync and Thread products.  

J-PAKE is a balanced PAKE, meaning that both sides must hold the same secret for mutual authentication. In the example of the J-PAKE-based IoT commissioning process (part of the Thread standard), a random password is generated to authenticate the key exchange process and is discarded afterwards. However, in some cases, it is desirable to store the password. For example, in a client-server application, the user knows a password, while the server stores a one-way transformation of the password. 

PAKE protocols designed for the above client-server setting are called augmented (as opposed to the balanced in the peer-to-peer setting). So far the only augmented PAKE protocol that has enjoyed wide use is SRP-6a, e.g., used in Apple’s iCloud, 1Password and Proton mail. SRP-6a Is the latest version of the 1998 SRP-3 scheme due to Wu after several revisions to address attacks. Limitations of SRP-6a are well known, including heuristic security, a lack of efficiency (due to the mandated use of a safe prime as the modulus) and no support for elliptic curve implementation. 

In 2018, an augmented PAKE scheme called OPAQUE was proposed by Jarecki, Krawczyk and Xu. In 2020, IETF selected OPAQUE as a candidate for standardization. A theoretical advantage promoted in favour of OPAQUE is the so-called pre-computation security. When the server is compromised, an offline dictionary attack to uncover the plaintext password is possible for both OPAQUE and SRP-6a. For OPAQUE, its pre-computation security means that the attacker can’t use a pre-computed table, whilst for SRP-6a, the attacker may use a pre-computed table, but it must be a unique table for each user, which requires a large amount of computation and storage. Therefore, the practical advantage provided by pre-computation security is limited. 

Apart from pre-computation security, OPAQUE has a few open issues which leave it unclear whether it will replace SRP-6a in practice. First, the original OPAQUE protocol defined in the 2018 paper leaks password update information to passive attackers, whilst SRP-6a doesn’t have this leakage. Furthermore, OPAQUE relies on a constant-time hash-to-curve function available for all elliptic curves, but details about the instantiation of this function remain to be established. Finally, the 2018 paper didn’t give a full specification of OPAQUE. In 2020, when OPAQUE was selected by IETF, its specification remained incomplete. The task of completing the spec was left as a post-selection exercise; today, it is still not finished.  

Motivated by the recognised limitations of SRP-6a and OPAQUE, we propose a new augmented PAKE scheme called Owl (joint work with Samiran Bag, Liqun Chen and Paul van Oorschot). Owl is obtained by efficiently adapting J-PAKE to an augmented setting, providing the augmented security against server compromise with yet lower computation than J-PAKE. To the best of our knowledge, Owl is the first augmented PAKE solution that provides systematic advantages over SRP-6a in terms of security, computation, round efficiency, message sizes, and cryptographic agility. 

On 5 March 2024, I gave a presentation on Owl at Financial Cryptography and Data Security 2024 (FC’24) in Curacao. The purpose of this blog is to invite public scrunity of Owl. See the Owl paper and the FC slides for further details. An open-source Java program that shows how Owl works in an elliptic curve setting is freely available. We hope security researchers and developers will find Owl useful, especially in password-based client-server settings where a PKI is unavailable (hence TLS doesn’t apply). Same as J-PAKE, Owl is not patented and is free to use.