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13.3. Binary Signatures, Virtual Cash

The final and perhaps the most important aspect of security is providing virtual money or binary cash; from another point of view, this could mean making digital signatures, and therefore electronic checks, possible.

At first sight, this seems impossible. The authority to issue documents such as checks is proved by a signature. Simple as it is, and apparently open to fraud, the system does actually work on paper. We might transfer it literally to the Web by scanning an image of a person's signature and sending that to validate his or her documents. However, whatever security that was locked to the paper signature has now evaporated. A forger simply has to copy the bit pattern that makes up the image, store it, and attach it to any of his or her purchases to start free shopping.

The way to write a digital signature is to perform some action on data provided by the other party that only you could have performed, thereby proving you are who you say.

The ideas of public key (PK) encryption are pretty well known by now, so we will just skim over the salient points. You have two keys: one (your public key) that encrypts messages and one (your private key) that decrypts messages encrypted with your public key (and vice versa). You give the public key to anyone who asks and keep your private key secret. Because the keys for encryption and decryption are not the same, the system is also called asymmetric key encryption.

For instance, let's apply the technology to a simple matter of the heart. You subscribe to a lonely hearts newsgroup where persons describe their attractions and their willingness to meet persons of similar romantic desires. The person you fancy publishes his or her public key at the bottom of the message describing his or her attractions. You reply:

I am (insert unrecognizably favorable description of self). Meet me behind the bicycle sheds at 00.30. My heart burns .. (etc.)

You encrypt this with your paramour's public key and send it. Whoever sees it on the way, or finds it lying around on the computer at the other end, will not be able to decrypt it and so learn the hour of your happiness. But your one and only can decrypt it, and can, in turn, encrypt a reply:

YES, Yes, a thousand times yes!

using the private key and send it back. If you can decrypt it using the public key, then you can be sure that it is from the right, fascinating person and not a bunch of jokers who are planning to gather round you at the witching hour to make low remarks.

However, anyone who guesses the public key to use could also decrypt the reply, so your true love could encrypt the reply using his or her private key (to prove he or she sent it) and then encrypt it again using your public key to prevent anyone else from reading it. You then decrypt it twice to find that everything is well.

The encryption and decryption modules have a single, crucial property:

  • Although you have the encrypting key number in your hand, you can't deduce the decrypting one. (Well, you can, but only after years of computing.) This is because encryption is done with a large number (the key), and decryption depends on knowing its prime factors, which are very difficult to determine.

The strength of PK encryption is measured by the length of the key, because this influences the length of time needed to calculate the prime factors. The Bad Guys and, oddly, the American government, would like people to use a short key, so that they can break any messages they want. People who do not think this is a good idea want to use a long key so that their messages can't be broken. The only practical limits are that the longer the key, the longer it takes to construct it in the first place, and the longer the sums take each time you use it.

An experiment in breaking a PK key was done in 1994 using 600 volunteers over the Internet. It took eight months' work by 1600 computers to factor a 429-bit number (see PGP: Pretty Good Privacy, by Simson Garfinkel, from O'Reilly & Associates). The time to factor a number roughly doubles for every additional 10 bits, so it would take the same crew a bit less than a million million million years to factor a 1024-bit key.

However, a breakthrough in the mathematics of factoring could change that overnight. Also, proponents of quantum computers say that these (so far conceptual) machines will run so much faster that 1024-bit keys will be breakable in less-than-lifetime runs.

But for the moment, PK looks pretty safe. The PK encryption method achieves several holy grails of the encryption community:

On the other hand, PK is one of the few encryption methods that can be broken without any traffic. The classical way to decrypt codes is to gather enough messages (which in itself is difficult and may be impossible if the user cunningly sends too few messages) and, from the regularities of the underlying plaintext that show through, work back to the encryption key. With a lot of help on the side, this is how the German Enigma codes were broken during World War II. It is worth noticing that the PK encryption method is breakable without any traffic: you "just" have to calculate the prime factors of the public key. In this it is unique, but as we have seen earlier, it isn't so easy either.

Given these two numbers, the public and private keys, the two modules are interchangeable: as well as working the way round you would expect, you can also take a plaintext message, decrypt it with the decryption module, and encrypt it with the encryption module to get back to plaintext again.

The point of this is that you can now encrypt a message with your private key and send it to anyone who has your public key. The fact that it decodes to readable text proves that it came from you: it is an unforgeable electronic signature.

This interesting fact is obviously useful when it comes to exchanging money over the Web. You open an account with someone like American Express. You want to buy a copy of this excellent book from the publishers, so you send Amex an encrypted message telling them to debit your account and credit O'Reilly's. Amex can safely do this because (providing you have been reasonably sensible and not published your private key) you are the only person who could have sent that message. Electronic commerce is a lot more complicated (naturally!) than this, but in essence this is what happens.

One of the complications is that because PK encryption involves arithmetic with very big numbers, it is very slow. Our lovers above could have encoded their complete messages using PK, but they might have gotten very bored doing it. In real life, messages are encrypted using a fast but old-fashioned system based on a single secret key that both parties know. The technology exists to make this kind of encryption as uncrackable as PK: the only way to attack a good system is to try every possible key in turn, and the key does not have to be very long to make this process take up so much time that it is effectively impossible. For instance, if you tried each possibility for a 128-bit key at the rate of a million a second, it would take 1025 years to find the right one. The traditional drawback to secret key cryptography has always been the difficulty of getting your secret key to the other person without anyone else getting a look at it.

Contemporary secure transaction methods usually involve transmitting a secret key by PK. Since the key is short (say, 128 bits or 16 characters), this does not take long. Then the key is used to encrypt and decrypt the message with a different algorithm, probably International Data Encryption Algorithm (IDEA) or Data Encryption Standard (DES). So, for instance, the Pretty Good Privacy package makes up a key and transmits it using PK, then uses IDEA to encrypt and decrypt the actual message.

13.3.1. Certificates

"No man is an island," John Donne reminds us. We do not practice cryptography on our own; indeed, there would be little point. Even in the simple situation of the spy and his spymaster, it is important to be sure you are actually talking to the correct person. Many intelligence operations depend on capturing the spy and replacing him or her at the radio with one of their own people to feed the enemy with twaddle. This can be annoying and dangerous for the spymaster, so he often teaches his spies little radio tricks that he hopes the captors will overlook and so betray themselves.

In the larger cryptographic world of the Web, the problem is as acute. When we order a pack of cards from www.butterthlies.com, we want to be sure the company accepting our money really is that celebrated card publisher and not some interloper; similarly, Butterthlies, Inc., wants to be sure that we are who we say we are and that we have some sort of credit account that will pay for their splendid offerings. The problems are solved to some extent by the idea of a certificate. A certificate is an electronic document signed (i.e., encrypted using a private key) by some respectable person or company called a certification authority (CA). It contains the holder's public key plus information about him or her: name, email address, company, and so on (see Section 13.6.5, "Make a Test Certificate", later in this chapter). There is no reason why, in the future, it should not contain height, weight, fingerprints, retinal patterns, keyboard style, and whatever other things technology can think up under the rubric of biometrics. You get this document by filling in a certificate request form issued by some CA; after you have crossed their palm with silver and they have applied whatever level of verification they deem appropriate, they send you back the data file.

In the future, the certification authority itself may hold a certificate from some higher-up CA, and so on, back to a CA that is so august and immensely respectable that it can sign its own certificate. (In the absence of a corporeal deity, some human has to do this.) This certificate is known as a root certificate, and a good root certificate is one for which the public key is widely and reliably available.

Currently, pretty much every CA uses a self-signed certificate, and certainly all the public ones do. Until some fairly fundamental work has been done to deal with how and when to trust second-level certificates, there isn't really any alternative. After all, just because you trust Fred to sign a certificate for Bill, does this mean you should trust Bill to sign certificates? Not in our opinion.

You might like to get a certificate from Thawte Consulting (http://www.thawte.com/), as we do later in this chapter. They provide a free beta test certificate you can play with, as well as proper ones at different levels of reliability that cost more or less money. Thawte's certificate automatically installs into your copy of Netscape. Test certificates can also be had from http://www.x509.com/.

When you do business with someone else on the Web, you exchange certificates, which are encrypted into your messages so that they cannot be stolen in transit. Secure transactions, therefore, require the parties to be able to verify the certificates of each other. In order to verify a certificate you need to have the public key of the authority that issued it. If you are presented with a certificate from an unknown authority when Apache-SSL has been told to insist on known CAs, it refuses access. But generally you will keep a stock of the published public keys of the leading CAs in a directory ready for use, and you should make it plain in your publicity which CAs you accept.

When the whole certificate structure is in place, there will be a chain of certificates leading back through bigger organizations to a few root certificate authorities, who are likely to be so big and impressive, like the telephone companies or the banks, that no one doubts their provenance.

The question of chains of certificates is the first stage in the formalization of our ideas of business and personal financial trust. Since the establishment of banks in the 1300s, we have gotten used to the idea that if we walk into a bank, it is safe to give our hard-earned money to the complete stranger sitting behind the till. However, on the Internet, the reassurance of the expensive building and its impressive staff will be missing. It will be replaced in part by certificate chains. But just because a person has a certificate does not mean you should trust him or her unreservedly. LocalBank may well have a certificate from CitiBank, and CitiBank from the Fed, and the Fed from whichever deity is in the CA business. LocalBank may have given their janitor a certificate, but all this means is that he probably is the janitor he says he is. You would not want to give him automatic authority to debit your account with cleaning charges.

You certainly would not trust someone who had no certificate, but what you would trust them to do would depend on policy statements issued by his or her employers and fiduciary superiors, modified by your own policies, which most people have not had to think very much about. The whole subject is extremely extensive and will probably bore us to distraction before it all settles down.

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