Internet Draft                                       Editor: Peter Gutmann
Category: BCP                                        University of Auckland
Expires: June 2006                                   <<<Many others>>>
                                                     December 2005

                   Key Management through Key Continuity

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This memo provides advice and Best Current Practice for implementors and
deployers of security applications that wish to use the key continuity method
of key management.

1. Introduction

<<<Note that the draft in its current form is still very much a strawman for
further comment.  The text contains a number of notes requesting further input
from readers, delimited by angle brackets.  Please send comments to the author
at or the SAAG list>>>.

There are many ways of managing the identification of remote entities.  One
simple but also highly effective method is the use of key continuity, a means
of ensuring that that the entity a user is dealing with today is the same as
the one they were dealing with last week (this principle is sometimes referred
to as continuity of identity).  When this principle is applied to
cryptographic protocols, the problem becomes one of determining whether a file
server, mail server, online store, or bank that a user dealt with last week is
still the same one this week.  Using key continuity to verify this means that
if the remote entity used a given key to communicate/authenticate itself last
week, the use of the same key this week indicates that it's the same entity.
This doesn't require any third-party attestation, because it can be done
directly by comparing last week's key to this week's one.  This is the basis
for key management through key continuity: Once you've got a known-good key,
you can verify a remote entity's identity by verifying that they're still
using the same key.  This document describes the principles that underly key
management through key continuity, and provides guidelines for its use in

1.1. Structure of this Document

Section 2 provides background information and a general discussion of the
principles of key continuity key management, as well as covering some problems
present in existing approaches that need to be addressed.  Section 3 contains
advice for users of key continuity key management.  Section 4 contains a
suggested standard format for storing key management data.

1.2.  Document Terminology and Conventions

"RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as
described in [RFC2119].

2. Key Management through Key Continuity

In its most basic form, key management through key continuity consists of two

  Step 1: On the first connection exchange key(s), possibly with additional
  out-of-band authentication.

  Step 2: On subsequent connections, ensure that the key being used matches
  the one exchanged initially.

In more formal terms, the key continuity method of key management is a
variation of the baby-duck security model [DUCKLING1][DUCKLING2], in which a
newly-initialised device (either one fresh out of the box or one reset to its
ground state) imprints upon the first device it sees in the same way that a
newlyhatched duckling imprints on the first moving object it sees as its

SSH [SSH1] was the first widely-used security application that used key
continuity as its primary form of key managment.  The first time a user
connects to an SSH server, the client application displays a warning that it's
been given a new public key that it's never encountered before, and asks the
user whether they want to continue.  When the user clicks "Yeah, sure,
whatever" (although the button is more frequently labelled "OK"), the client
application remembers the key that was used, and compares it to future keys
used by the server.  If the key is the same each time, there's a good chance
that it's the same server (SSH terminology refers to this as the known-hosts
mechanism).  In addition to this, SSH allows a user to verify the key via its
fingerprint, which can be conveniently exchanged via out-of-band means.  The
fingerprint is a universal key identifier consisting of the hash of the key
components or the hash of the certificate if the key is in the form of a

SSH is the original key-continuity solution, but unfortunately it doesn't
provide complete continuity.  When the server is rebuilt, the connection to
the previous key is lost unless the sysadmin has remembered to archive the
configuration and keying information after they set up the server (some OS
distributions can migrate keys over during an OS upgrade, so this can vary
somewhat depending on the OS and how total the replacement of system
components is).  Since SSH is commonly used to secure access to kernel-of-the-
week open-source Unix systems, the breaking of the chain of continuity can
happen more frequently than would first appear.

Some of the problem is due to the ease with which an SSH key changeover can
occur.  In the PKI world, this process is so painful that the same key is
typically reused and recycled in perpetuity, ensuring key continuity at some
cost in security, since a compromise of a key recycled over a period of
several years compromises all data that the key protected in that time unless
a mechanism that provides perfect forward secrecy is used (it rarely is).  In
contrast an SSH key can be replaced quickly and easily, limiting its exposure
to attack but breaking the chain of continuity.  A solution to this problem
would be to have the server automatically generate and certify key n+1 when
key n is taken into use, with key n+1 saved to offline media such as a floppy
disk or USB memory token for future use when the system or SSH server is
reinstalled/replaced.  In this way, continuity to the previous, known server
key is maintained.  Periodically rolling over the key (even without it being
motivated by the existing system/server being replaced) is good practice since
it limits the exposure of any one key.  This would require a small change to
the SSH protocol to allow an old-with-new key exchange message to be set after
the changeover has occurred.

Unlike SSH, SSL/TLS [TLS] and IPsec [IPSEC] were designed to rely on an
external key management infrastructure, although at a pinch both can function
without it by using shared keys, typically passwords.  The lack of such an
infrastructure has been addressed in two ways.  In SSL, the client
(particularly in its most widespread form, the web browser) contains a large
collection of hardcoded CA certificates (over a hundred) that are trusted to
issue SSL server certificates.  Many of these hardcoded CAs are completely
unknown, follow dubious practices such as using weak 512-bit keys or keys with
40-year lifetimes, appear moribund, or have had their CA keys on-sold to
various third parties when the original owners went out of business [NOTDEAD].
All of these CAs are assigned the same level of trust, which means that the
whole system is only as secure as the least secure CA, since compromising or
subverting any one of the CAs compromises the entire collection (in PKI
terminology, what's being implemented is unbounded universal cross-
certification among all of the CAs).

The second solution, used by both SSL/TLS and IPsec, is to use self-issued
certificates where the user acts as their own CA and issues themselves
certificates that then have to be installed on client/peer machines.
In both cases the security provided is little better than for SSH keys unless
the client is careful to disable all CA certificates except for the one or two
that they trust, a process that requires around 700 mouse clicks in the latest
version of Internet Explorer.  A further downside of this is that the client
software will now throw up warning dialogs prophesying all manner of doom and
destruction when an attempt is made to connect to a server with a certificate
from a now-untrusted CA, although given the figures from the server survey
above browsers must already be doing this on many sites anyway, or
alternatively ignoring the issue of invalid certificates for fear of scaring

The same key-continuity solution used in SSH can be used here, and is already
employed by some SSL clients such as MTAs, which have to deal with self-issued
and similar informal certificates more frequently than other applications such
as web servers.  This is because of their use in STARTTLS, an extension to
SMTP that provides opportunistic TLS-based encryption for mail transfers.
Similar facilities exist for other mail protocols such as POP and IMAP, with
the mechanism being particularly popular with SMTP server administrators
because it provides a means of authenticating legitimate users to prevent
misuse by spammers.  Since the mail servers are set up and configured by
sysadmins rather than commercial organisations worried about adverse user
reactions to browser warning dialogs, they typically use self-issued
certificates since there's no point in paying a CA for the same thing.

Key continuity management among STARTTLS implementations is still somewhat
haphazard.  Since STARTTLS is intended to be a completely transparent, fire-
and-forget solution, the ideal setup would automatically generate a
certificate on the server side when the software is installed, and use
standard SSH-style key continuity management on the client, with optional out-
of-band verification via the key/certificate fingerprint.  Some
implementations (typically open-source ones) support this fully, some support
various aspects of it (for example requiring tedious manual operations for
certificate generation or key/certificate verification), and some (typically
commercial ones) require the use of certificates from commercial CAs, an even
more tedious (and expensive) manual operation.

A similar model is used in SIP, in which the first connection exchanges a
(typically) self-signed certificate, which is then checked on subsequent
connects.  Further measures such as the use of speaker voice recognition can
be used to provide additional authentication for the SIP exchange.  A similar
principle has been used in several secure IP-phone protocols, which (for
example) have one side read out a hash of the key over the secure link,
relying for its security on the fact that real-time voice spoofing is
relatively difficult to perform.

3. Using Key Continuity Key Management

Section 2 outlined a number of considerations that need to be taken into
account when using key continuity as a form of key management.  These are
covered in the following subsections.

3.1. Key Generation

The simplest key-continuity approach automatically (and transparently)
generates the key when the application that uses it is installed or configured
for the first time.  If the underlying protocol uses certificates, the
application should generate a standard self-signed certificate at this point,
otherwise it can use whatever key format the underlying protocol uses,
typically this is raw public key components encoded in a protocol-specific

3.2. Optional out-of-band Authentication

If possible, the initial exchange should use additional out-of-band
authentication to authenticate the key.  A standard technique is to generate a
hash or fingerprint of the key and verify the hash through out-of-band means.
All standard security protocols have a notion of a key hash in some form,
whether it be an X.509 certificate fingerprint, a PGP/OpenPGP [PGP] key
fingerprint, or an SSH key fingerprint.

The out-of-band verification is done in a situation-specific manner.  For
example when the key is used in a VoIP application, the communicating parties
may read the hash value over the link, relying on speaker voice recognition
and the difficulty of performing real-time continous-speech spoofing for
security.  When the key is used to secure access to a network server, the hash
may be communicated in person, over the phone, printed on a business card, or
published in some other well-known location.  When the key is used to secure
access to a bank server, the hash may be communicated using a PIN mailer, or
by having the user visit their bank branch.  Although it's impossible to
enumerate every situation here, applying a modicum of common sense should
provide the corerct approach for specific situations.

Other distribution mechanisms are also possible.  For example when configuring
a machine, the administrator can pre-install the key information when the
operating system is installed, in the same way that many systems come pre-
configured with trusted X.509 certificates.

3.3. Key Rollover

When a key needs to be replaced, the new key should ideally be authenticated
using forward-chaining authentication from the current key.  For example if
the key is in the form of an X.509 certificate or PGP key, the current key can
sign the new key.  If the key consists solely of raw key components exchanged
during a protocol handshake, this type of forward-chaining authentication
isn't possible without modifying the underlying protocol.  Protocol designers
may wish to take into account the requirements for forward-chaining
authentication when designing new protocols or updating existing ones.

3.4. Key <-> Host/Service Mapping

A key will usually be associated with a service type (for example "SSH" or
"TLS"), a host, and a port (typically the port is specified implicitly by the
service type, but it may also be specified explicitly if a nonstandard port is
used).  When storing key continuity data, the service/host/port information
should always be stored exactly as seen by the user, without any subsequent
expansion, conversion, or other translation.  For example if the user knows a
host as then the key continuity data should be stored under
this name, and not under the associated IP address(es).  Applying the WYSIWYG
principle to the name the user sees prevents problems with things like virtual
hosting (where has the same IP address as, hosts that have been moved to a new IP address, and so

3.5. User Interface

The user interface should take care to explain the details and consequences of
a new key and key change to the user.  When encountering a new key, this would
consist of displaying the service type (for example "SSH" or "TLS"), the host
name and (if a nonstandard port is being used) port, the key hash/fingerprint,
and an indication that this is a new/unknown key for the given
service/host/port.  The user should be informed of the need for out-of-band
authentication, and given the option to accept the key permanently, accept it
once for this session, or not accept it at all, with an indication that not
accepting it will abort the connection.  Implementors should bear in mind that
in most cases this will reduce the choices in the user's mind to "Connect
without warnings" or "Connect with warnings".

3.6. Key Hash/Fingerprint Truncation

The use of the full hash/fingerprint when the authentication process is being
performed by humans can be quite cumbersome, requiring the transmission and
verification of (for the most common hash algorithm, SHA-1), 40 hex digits.
Implementors may consider truncating the hash value to make it easier to work
with.  For example a 64-bit hash value provides a modest level of security
while still allowing the value to be printed on media such as business cards
and communicated and checked by humans.  Although such a short hash value
isn't secure against an intensive brute-force attack, it is sufficient to stop
all but the most dedicated attackers, and certainly far more secure than
simply accepting the key at face value, as is currently widely done.
Implementors should consider the relative merits of usability vs. security
when deciding to truncate the key hash/fingerprint.

<<<There are better ways than using hex digits, e.g. Cryptographically
   Generated Addresses,, or
   the XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX type encoding commonly used for software registration
   codes, which have the advantage that users are familiar with them.  Is it
   worth adopting one of these, and if so which one?>>>

3.7. Key Information Storage

Configuration information of this kind is typically stored using a two-level
scheme, systemwide information set up when then operating system is installed
or configured and managed by the system administrator, and per-user
information which is private to each user.  For example on Unix systems the
systemwide configuration data is traditionally stored in /etc or /var, with
per-user configuration data stored in the user's home directory.  Under
Windows the systemwide configuration data is stored under an OS service
account and the per-user configuration data is stored in the user's registry
branch.  The systemwide configuration provides an initial known-good set of
key <-> identity mappings, with per-user data providing additional user-
specific information that doesn't affect any other users on the system.

4. Key Continuity Data Storage

<<<This may be better off in its own RFC, although since it's pretty cross-
   jurisdictional there's no obvious domain to put it under.  This also has
   problems with automated updates of entries, possibly requiring a
   sychronisation and remote-access process to update entries.  Another
   approach is to have a directory full of files, one per entry (so you can
   update them via rsync), but this precludes having the information protected
   through standard cryptographic means>>>

Applications require a standardised means of associating hosts with keys.  The
following text-based format, inspired by the /etc/passwd format, is
recommended for easy exchange of key continuity data across applications.  The
format of the key data file using using Augmented BNF [ABNF] is as follows.

  keydata = keydef | comment | blank

  keydef = algorithm ":" key-hash ":" service ":" host ":" port rfu CRLF

  comment = "#" *(WSP / VCHAR) CRLF

  blank = *(WSP) CRLF

  algorithm = *(ALPHA / DIGIT)

  key-hash = *(HEXDIG)

  service = *(ALPHA)

  host = <<<wherever this is specified>>>

  port = *(DIGIT) / ""

  rfu = "" / ":" *(WSP / VCHAR)

The algorithm field contains the hash/fingerprint algorithm, usually "sha1".
This allows multiple hash algorithms to be used for a fingerprint.  For
example while the current standard algorithm is SHA-1, some legacy
implementations may require MD5, and future implementations may use SHA-1

The key-hash field contains the hash/fingerprint of the key.  This value may
be truncated as described in section 3.  When comparing truncated hashes for
equality, the first min( hash1-length, hash2-length ) bytes of the two values
are compared.

The service field specifies the service or protocol that the hash/fingerprint
applies to.  For example if both a TLS and and SSH server were running on the
same host, the protocol field would be used to distinguish between the key
hashes for the two servers.

The host-name and (optional) host-port fields contain the host name and port
that the key corresponds to.  Typically the port is implicitly specified in
the service field, but it may also be explicitly specified here.

For example a typical key continuity data file might consist of:

  # Sample key continuity data file

The first entry contains the fingerprint of an X.509 certificate used by the
web server for  The second and third entries contain the
(truncated) fingerprint of the SSH key used by the server ssh.example com,
first in the standard SHA-1 format and then in the alternative MD5 format.

4.1. Additional Security for the Key Continuity Data

The key continuity data is simply a plain text file with no (explicit)
additional security measures applied, although in practice it would be
expected that OS security measures be used to prevent modification by
arbitrary users.  In addition to the OS-based security restrictions, the data
can be given additional protection through encapsulation in PGP or S/MIME
security envelopes, or through the use of other cryptographic protection
mechanisms such as cryptographic checksums or MACs.  When encapsulated using
PGP or S/MIME the key data is no longer a plain text file, and will need to be
extracted in order to be used.  Alternatively, a PGP or S/MIME detached
signature can be stored alongside the key data so that the data to be used
directly while still allowing it to be verified.

4.x Discussion

The intent of this format is to follow the widely-used and recognised
/etc/passwd file format with which many users will be familiar.  The format
has been kept deliberately simple in order to avoid designing a general-
purpose security assertion language such as KeyNote [REF] or SAML [SAML].
While this will no doubt not suit all users, it should suffice for most,
while remaining simple enough to encourage widespread adoption.

There are two options available for storing the key-continuity data, the
single-file format described above, and one entry per file.  The latter makes
it possible to use mechanisms like rsync to update individual entries/files
across systems, but leads to an explosion of hard-to-manage tiny files, each
containing a little piece of configuration data.  It also makes it impossible
to secure the configuration data via mechanisms such as PGP or S/MIME.
Finally, the number of users who would use rsync to manage these files, when
compared to the total user base, is essentially nonexistent.  For this reason
the single-file approach is preferred.

5. Security Considerations

Publishing a BCP on this topic may make the authors a lightning rod for "this
is just pretend security, you really need a <insert sender's favourite
authentication system>" complaints.

Author Address

Peter Gutmann
University of Auckland
Private Bag 92019
Auckland, New Zealand

<<<Many others>>>

References (Normative)

[ABNF] "Augmented BNF for Syntax Specifications: ABNF", RFC 4234, David
Crocker and Paul Overell, October 2005.

References (Informative)

[DUCKLING1] "The Resurrecting Duckling: Security Issues in Ad-Hoc Wireless
Networking", Frank Stajano and Ross Anderson, Proceedings of the 7th
International Workshop on Security Protocols, Springer-Verlag Lecture Notes in
Computer Science No.1796, April 1999, p.172.

[DUCKLING2] "The Resurrecting Duckling - What Next?", Frank Stajano,
Proceedings of the 8th International Workshop on Security Protocols, Springer-
Verlag Lecture Notes in Computer Science No.2133, April 2000, p.204.

[IPSEC] "Security Architecture for the Internet Protocol", RFC 2401, Stephen
Kent and Randall Atkinson, November 1998.

[KEYNOTE] "The KeyNote Trust-Management System Version 2", RFC 2704, Matt
Blaze, Joan Feigenbaum, John Ioannidis, and Angelos Keromytis September 1999.

[NOTDEAD] "PKI: It's Not Dead, Just Resting", Peter Gutmann, IEEE Computer,
August 2002, p.41.

[PGP] "OpenPGP Message Format", RFC 2440, Jon Callas, Lutz Donnerhacke, Hal
Finney, and Rodney Thayer, November 1998.

[SAML] "Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), Version 1.0", OASIS XML-
Based Security Services Technical Committee, April 2002.

[SSH1] "The SSH (Secure Shell) Remote Login Protocol", draft-ylonen-ssh-
protocol-00.txt, Tatu Ylonen, November 1995 (this draft and the program it was
based on introducted the key continuity/known-hosts mechanism, although it was
never published as an RFC).

[TLS] "The TLS Protocol, Version 1.0", RFC 2246, Tim Dierks and Christopher
Allen, January 1999.

Full Copyright Statement

Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2005). This document is subject to the
rights, licenses and restrictions contained in BCP 78, and except as set forth
therein, the authors retain all their rights.

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