|Knodel, et al.
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Definition of End-to-end Encryption
This document provides a definition of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) from both the perspective of a regular internet user as well as from the perspective of required properties for implementers.¶
This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.¶
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This Internet-Draft will expire on 23 December 2023.¶
Copyright (c) 2023 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the document authors. All rights reserved.¶
This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal Provisions Relating to IETF Documents (https://trustee.ietf.org/license-info) in effect on the date of publication of this document. Please review these documents carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect to this document. Code Components extracted from this document must include Revised BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as described in the Revised BSD License.¶
End-to-end encryption is an application of cryptography mechanisms and properties in communication systems between endpoints. End-to-end encrypted systems provide security and privacy through confidentiality, integrity, authenticity and forward secrecy for communication amongst people. Such communication can include messages, email, video, audio, and other forms of media.¶
Improvements to end-to-end encryption strive to maximize the user's security and privacy while balancing usability and availability.¶
End-to-end encryption, irrespective of the content or the specific methods employed, relies on two important and rigorous technical concepts: the end-to-end principle as defined in the IETF; and encryption, an application of cryptographic mechanisms and the primary means employed by the IETF to secure internet protocols and maintain the confidentiality of content delivered via these internet protocols. Where end-to-end encryption is comprised of these necessary constituent parts, a systems approach also defines their interplay.¶
An "end" either sends messages or receives them, usually both. Other systems on the path are just that: other systems. Other systems MAY be used to facilitate the sending of messages between both "ends", but are not "ends" themselves.¶
It is, however, not trivial to establish the definition of an end point in isolation. [hale] Depending on the context, an "end" may be a user; a device colocated with the user; or a set of devices controlled by a user that want to simultaneously participate in the conversation.¶
The principle has evolved to an understanding that the "network's job is to transmit datagrams as efficiently and flexibly as possible", and the rest should be done at the ends. [RFC1958] This principle can also be extended to the design of applications itself. [saltzer][RFC3724][RFC3238]¶
Encryption is the process of using cryptographic methods to convert plaintext to ciphertext that is decipherable only by authorized parties. Encryption can help extend the end-to-end principle in application design, where the function of the network is limited to efficiently transporting messages, but additionally the network cannot access any part of the message itself.¶
Encryption can be applied in an end-to-end context in many ways. For example, applications may use the double-ratchet algorithm (which uses an authenticated encryption scheme) and of an Authenticated Key Exchange (AKE). The usage of these algorithms (or variants of these) is present in many modern messenger applications such as those adopted in the IETF Messaging Layer Security working group, whose charter is to create a document that satisfies the need for several internet applications for group key establishment and message protection protocols [mls]. OpenPGP, mostly used for email, uses a different technique to achieve security and privacy. It is also chartered in the IETF to create a specification that covers object encryption, object signing, and identity certification [openpgp]. Both protocols rely on the use of asymmetric and symmetric encryption, and exchange long-term identity public keys amongst end points.¶
An end-to-end-encryption service provides confidentiality, integrity, authenticity and forward secrecy between ends.¶
In the context of messaging, confidentiality implies that a system that uses "end-to-end [...] encryption would conceal communications between one user's instant messaging application through any intermediate devices and servers all the way to the recipient's instant messaging application." [dkg] Confidentiality is broken if content can be decrypted at any intermediate point.¶
As for integrity and authenticity, permission of data manipulation or creation of pseudo-identities for third parties to allow access under the user's identity also violate end-to-end encryption. In other words, the application functions only for the end user and does not perform functions for any other entity coverly, nor overtly, say even if that entity claims to have obtained the consent of the end user. Thus, end point authenticity must be established as (sub-)identities of the end user, and end-to-end integrity must also be maintained by the system. There is considerable system design flexibility available in the mechanisms for authentication and integrity, specifically data authentication, that still meet this requirement.¶
When looking at implementations of end-to-end encryption from a design perspective, the first consideration is the list of fundamental features that distinguish an end-to-end encrypted system from one that does not employ end-to-end encryption. Secondly, one must consider the development goals for improving the features of end-to-end encryption, in other words, the challenges defined by the designers, developers and implementers of end-to-end encryption.¶
The features and challenges listed below are framed comprehensively rather than from the perspective of their design, development, implementation or use.¶
This section defines the security properties of an end-to-end encrypted system. The properties of end-to-end encryption from an implementation perspective can be split into two categories: 1) the required core properties of confidentiality, integrity, authenticity and forward secrecy; and 2) recommended additional properties for improved security, such as availability, deniability and post-compromise security, which are desirable enhancements.¶
A system provides message confidentiality if only the sender and intended recipient(s) can read the message plaintext, i.e. messages sent between participants can only be read by the agreed upon participants in the group and all participants share the identical group member list.¶
A system provides message integrity when it guarantees that messages have not been modified in transit. If a message has been modified, it must be detected in a reliable way by the recipient.¶
A system provides authentication if the recipient and sender can verify each other's identities in relation to the contents of their communications.¶
- Forward secrecy
Forward secrecy is a security property that prevents attackers from decrypting encrypted data they have previously captured over a communication channel before the time of compromise, if the attacker compromises one of the endpoints. Forward secrecy is usually achieved by regularly deriving new encryption/decryption keys, and destroying old keys that are no longer required to encrypt or decrypt messages.¶
There is a set of optional/desirable features that a end-to-end system can provide. These properties can be related to the network, to the user interface or specialized variants of the previous features.¶
A system provides high availability if the user is able to decrypt the contents of the message when they so desire and potentially from more than one device. For example, a message can arrive to a recipient even after they have been offline for a long time. Note that applications that use this feature often implement a threshold for this property: number or aggregate size of messages; or messages from a month ago can be read by a user that has been offline, but not messages from a year ago.¶
- Loss Resilience
If a message is permanently lost by the network, sender(s) and/or recipient(s) should still be able to communicate.¶
Deniability ensures that anyone able to decrypt a record of the transcript, including message recipients, cannot cryptographically prove to others that a particular participant of a communication authored a specific message. As demonstrated by widely implemented protocols, this optional property must exist in conjunction with the necessary property of authentication, i.e. participants in a communication must be assured that they are communicating with the intended parties but this assurance cannot be transmitted to any other parties.¶
- Post-compromise security
Post-compromise security is a security property that seeks to guarantee future confidentiality and integrity in the face of a passive end-point compromise and consequently that communication sent post-compromise is protected with the same security properties that existed before the compromise. It is usually achieved by adding new ephemeral key exchanges, ie new randomness, to the derivation of encryption/decryption keys every 'x' amount of time or after 'n' messages sent. Note that post-compromise security is not met in the face of active attackers that compromise an end-point. This property can add a level of complexity to a protocol as deriving new key material can be expensive, and, therefore, it has to be carefully evaluated as part of a system's design.¶
- Metadata obfuscation
Digital communication inevitably generates data other than the content of the communication itself, such as IP addresses, user identifiers, group memberships, date and time of messages and size of messages. Inferred metadata includes interaction between IP addresses, time of first contact and frequencies of contact, login, and messages. To enhance the privacy and security of end-to-end encryption, steps should be taken to minimize, obscure or delete metadata.¶
- Disappearing messages
For confidential conversations, deleting one-by-one sensitive messages typically depends on a level of client-side security that is unsustainable. For example, endusers can still copy text or screenshot images outside the secured client application. A certain level of trust among users of the system is required. That said, manual actions like "delete for me" and "delete for everyone", or time-based automated deletion of content with "disppearing messages" still provide a valuable defense amongst trusted parties in the event of a compromise of a device of one of the participants.¶
Below is a list of some challenges currently faced by designers of end-to-end encrypted systems.¶
- Making messaging applications interoperable is an important goal for a healthy and user-centric internet ecosystem, however it requires careful design of protocols and systems, such as content type negotiation; provisions of global services, such as discovery; and a great deal of cooperation amongst implementers.¶
- Public key verification is very difficult for users to manage. Authentication of the two ends is required for secure and private conversations. Therefore, solving the problem of verification of public keys is a major concern for any end-to-end encrypted system design. Some applications bind together the account identity and the key, and leave users to establish a trust relationship between them, assisted by public key fingerprint information.¶
- Users want to smoothly switch application use between devices, but this comes at a cost to the security and privacy of the communication. Thus, there is a problem of availability in end-to-end encrypted systems because the account identity's private key is generated by and stored on the end-user's original device and to move the private key to another device can compromise the security of one of the end-points of the system, eg by opening the door to key-impersonation attacks.¶
- Existing protocols are vulnerable to metadata analysis, even though metadata is often as sensitive as message content. Metadata is unencrypted (and sometimes unencryptable) information that travels through the network and includes delivery-relevant details that servers require such as the account identity of end-points, timestamps, message size or more. Metadata is difficult to eliminate or obfuscate entirely.¶
- Confidential and secure communications systems should also maintain the privacy of users but this is necessarily balanced with authentication and is related to the metadata problem for account identity.¶
- Users need to communicate in groups, but this presents scalability problems for traditional end-to-end encryption systems. Message Layer Security protocol [mls] is a modern end-to-end encrypted message protocol that addresses this scalability concern.¶
- The whole communication should remain secure if only one message is compromised. However, for encrypted communication, in some schemes, you must currently choose between forward secrecy or the ability to fully communicate asynchronously. This presents a problem for application design that uses end-to-end encryption for asynchronous messaging over email, RCS, etc.¶
- Users of end-to-end encrypted systems should be able to communicate with any medium of their choice, such as text, audio, video, or miscellaneous files. However, there is often a resource problem because there are no open protocols to allow users to securely share the same resource in an end-to-end encrypted system.¶
- Usability, accessibility and internationalisation features often need careful design and implementation with respect to security and privacy, such as message read status, typing indicators, URL/link previews, third-party input/output applications.¶
- End user security tools like anti-virus plugins, spam filters, fraud protections are in conflict with the security and privacy considerations of the end-to-end application.¶
- Deployment is notoriously challenging for any software application where maintenance and updates can be particularly disastrous for obsolete cryptographic libraries.¶
While the formal definition and properties of an end-to-end encrypted system relate to communication security and privacy, they do not draw from a comprehensive threat model or speak to what users expect from end-to-end encrypted communication. It is in this context that some designs and architectures of end-to-end encryption may ultimately run contrary to user expectations of end-to-end encrypted systems [GEC-EU]. Although some system designs do not directly violate "the math" of encryption algorithms, they do so by implicating and weakening other important aspects of an end-to-end encrypted system.¶
A system is completely trustworthy if and only if it is completely resilient, reliable, accountable, and secure in a way that consistently meets users’ expectations.¶
This definition is complete in its positive and negative aspects: what it is, e.g. "Worthy of confidence" and what it is not, e.g. in RFC 7258: "behavior that subverts the intent of communicating parties without the agreement of those parties" [RFC7258].¶
Therefore, a trustworthy end-to-end encrypted communication system is the provider of the set of functions needed by two or more parties to communicate among each other in a confidential, authenticated and integrity-preserving fashion without any third party having access to the content of that communication.¶
A proper implementation of end-to-end encryption significantly reduces the need of a user to trust a provider. However, this is contingent on users having some guarantee that the system actually works in conformance to the stated specification and security properties of end-to-end encryption. One way by which users can increase their trust in the system and confirm their system is performing in accordance to cryptographic protocols' specifications is using systems that are releasing their software as open source. Open source software allows technical users to analyse the system and be assured of its functioning. While most users will not be able to do so, as typical users lack the technological knowledge needed to analyse source code, technical communities can do so. It is vital that systems provide publicly accessible security analyses of their source code, enabling reproducible builds and audits and investigations that can be published and peer reviewed.¶
No matter the specifics, any methods used to access to the content of the messages by a third party would violate a user's expectations of end-to-end encrypted messaging. "[T]hese access methods scan message contents on the user’s [device]", which are then "scanned for matches against a database of prohibited content before, and sometimes after, the message is sent to the recipient" [GEC-EU]. Third party access also covers cases without scanning -- namely, it should not be possible for any third-party end point, even those under the user's identity as per Section 2.1, to access the data regardless of reason.¶
If a method makes secure and private communication, intended to be sent over an encrypted channel between end points, available to parties other than the sender and intended recipient(s), that method violates the understood expectation of that security property.¶
Analyses such as traffic fingerprinting or other encrypted or unencrypted data analysis techniques, outside of or as part of end-to-end encrypted system design, allow third parties to draw inferences from communication that was intended to be confidential. "By allowing private user data to be scanned via direct access by servers and their providers," the use of these methods should be considered an affront to "the privacy expectations of users of end-to-end encrypted communication systems" [GEC-EU].¶
Not only should an end-to-end encrypted system value user data privacy by not explicitly enabling pattern inference, it should actively be attempting to solve issues of metadata and traceability (enhanced metadata) through further innovation that stays ahead of advances in these techniques.¶
RFC 3552 talks about the Internet Threat model such as the assumption that the user can expect any communications systems, but perhaps especially end-to-end encrypted systems, to not be intentionally compromised [RFC3552]. Intentional compromises of end-to-end encryption are usually referred to as "backdoors" but are often presented as additional design features under terms like "key escrow" or "exceptional access". Users of end-to-end encryption would not expect a front, back or side door entrance into their confidential conversations and would expect a provider to actively resist -- technically and legally -- compromise through these means.¶
From messaging to video conferencing, there are many competing features in an end-to-end encrypted implementation that is secure, private and usable. The most well designed system cannot meet the expectations of every user, nor does an ideal system exist from any dimension. End-to-end encryption is a technology that is constantly improving to achieve the ideal as defined in this document.¶
Features and functionalities of end-to-end encryption should be developed and improved in service of end user expectations for privacy preserving communications.¶
Fred Baker, Stephen Farrell, Richard Barnes all contributed to the early strategic thinking of this document and whether it would be useful to the IETF community.¶
The folks at Riseup and the LEAP Encryption Access Project have articulated brilliantly the hardest parts of end-to-end encryption systems that serve the end users' right to whisper.¶
Ryan Polk at the Internet Society has energy to spare when it comes to organising meaningful contributions, like this one, for the technical advisors of the Global Encryption Coalition.¶
Adrian Farrel, Eric Rescorla and Paul Wouters are acknowleded for their review, comments, or questions that lead to improvement of this document.¶
Chelsea Komlo and Britta Hale have contributed their deep expertise and consice and rigourous writing to this draft.¶
This document does not specify new protocols and therefore does not bring up technical security considerations.¶
Because some policy decisions may affect the security of the internet, a clear and shared definition of end-to-end encryption is important in policy related discussions. This document aims to provide that clarity.¶
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- Carpenter, B., Ed., "Architectural Principles of the Internet", RFC 1958, DOI 10.17487/RFC1958, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc1958>.
- Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc2119>.
- Floyd, S. and L. Daigle, "IAB Architectural and Policy Considerations for Open Pluggable Edge Services", RFC 3238, DOI 10.17487/RFC3238, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc3238>.
- Rescorla, E. and B. Korver, "Guidelines for Writing RFC Text on Security Considerations", BCP 72, RFC 3552, DOI 10.17487/RFC3552, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc3552>.
- Kempf, J., Ed., Austein, R., Ed., and IAB, "The Rise of the Middle and the Future of End-to-End: Reflections on the Evolution of the Internet Architecture", RFC 3724, DOI 10.17487/RFC3724, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc3724>.
- Alvestrand, H., "A Mission Statement for the IETF", BCP 95, RFC 3935, DOI 10.17487/RFC3935, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc3935>.
- Shirey, R., "Internet Security Glossary, Version 2", FYI 36, RFC 4949, DOI 10.17487/RFC4949, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc4949>.
- Farrell, S. and H. Tschofenig, "Pervasive Monitoring Is an Attack", BCP 188, RFC 7258, DOI 10.17487/RFC7258, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc7258>.
- Barnes, R., Schneier, B., Jennings, C., Hardie, T., Trammell, B., Huitema, C., and D. Borkmann, "Confidentiality in the Face of Pervasive Surveillance: A Threat Model and Problem Statement", RFC 7624, DOI 10.17487/RFC7624, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc7624>.
- Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc8174>.
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