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Aries RFC 0049: Repudiation

  • Authors: Daniel Hardman
  • Status: ACCEPTED
  • Since: 2019-03-01
  • Status Note: Well understood and baked into various protocol designs and DIDComm processes--but not yet ratified by the larger Aries community.
  • Supersedes: Indy HIPE 0037
  • Start Date: 2018-03-01 (backdated)
  • Tags: concept


Explain DID Communication's perspective on repudiation, and how this influences the DIDComm approach to digital signatures.


A very common mistake among newcomers to cryptography is to assume that digital signatures are the best way to prove the origin of data. While it is true that digital signatures can be used in this way, over-signing creates a digital exhaust that can lead to serious long-term privacy problems. We do use digital signatures, but we want to be very deliberate about when and why--and by default, we want to use a more limited technique called authenticated encryption. This doc explains the distinction and its implications.


If Carol receives a message that purports to come from Alice, she may naturally ask:

Do I know that this really came from Alice?

This is a fair question, and an important one. There are two ways to answer it:

  • Alice can send in a way that's repudiable
  • Alice can send in a way that's non-repudiable

Both of these approaches can answer Carol's question, but they differ in who can trust the answer. If Carol knows Alice is the sender, but can't prove it to anybody else, then we say the message is publicly repudiable; if Carol can prove the origin to others, then we say the message is non-repudiable.

The repudiable variant is accomplished with a technique called authenticated encryption.

The non-repudiable variant is accomplished with digital signatures.

How Authenticated Encryption Works

Repudiable sending may sound mysterious, but it's actually quite simple. Alice and Carol can negotiate a shared secret and trust one another not to leak it. Thereafter, if Alice sends Carol a message that uses the shared secret (e.g., it's encrypted by a negotiated symmetric encryption key), then Carol knows the sender must be Alice. However, she can't prove it to anyone, because Alice's immediate counter-response could be, "Carol could have encrypted this herself. She knows the key, too." Notice that this only works in a pairwise channel.


Non-repudiable messages are typically accomplished with digital signatures. With signatures, everyone can examine a signature to verify its provenance.

Fancy signature schemes such as ring signatures may represent intermediate positions, where the fact that a signature was provided by a member of a group is known--but not which specific member did the signing.

Why and When To Use Each Strategy

A common mistake is to assume that digital signatures should be used everywhere because they give the most guarantees. This is a misunderstanding of who needs which guarantees under which conditions.

If Alice tells a secret to Carol, who should decide whether the secret is reshared--Alice, or Carol?

photo by Wassim Loumi, CC SA 2.0, Flickr

In an SSI paradigm, the proper, desirable default is that a sender of secrets should retain the ability to decide if their secrets are shareable, not give that guarantee away.

If Alice sends a repudiable message, she gets a guarantee that Carol can't reshare it in a way that damages Alice. On the other hand, if she sends a message that's digitally signed, she has no control over where Carol shares the secret and proves its provenance. Hopefully Carol has Alice's best interests at heart, and has good judgment and solid cybersecurity...

There are certainly cases where non-repudiation is appropriate. If Alice is entering into a borrower:lender relationship with Carol, Carol needs to prove to third parties that Alice, and only Alice, incurred the legal obligation.

DIDComm supports both modes of communication. However, properly modeled interactions tend to favor repudiable messages; non-repudiation must be a deliberate choice. For this reason, we assume repudiable until an explicit signature is required (in which case the sign() crypto primitive is invoked). This matches the physical world, where most communication is casual and does not carry the weight of legal accountability--and should not.

Unknown Recipients

Imagine that Alice wants to broadcast a message. She doesn't know who will receive it, so she can't use authenticated encryption. Yet she wants anyone who receives it to know that it truly comes from her.

In this situation, digital signatures are required. Note, however, that Alice is trading some privacy for her ability to publicly prove message origin.


Authenticated encryption is not something we invented. It is well described in the documentation for libsodium. It is implemented there, and also in the pure javascript port, TweetNacl.


The main reason not to emphasize authenticated encryption over digital signatures is that we seem to encounter a steady impedance from people who are signature-oriented. It is hard and time-consuming to reset expectations. However, we have concluded that the gains in privacy are worth the effort.


The following lists the implementations (if any) of this RFC. Please do a pull request to add your implementation. If the implementation is open source, include a link to the repo or to the implementation within the repo. Please be consistent in the "Name" field so that a mechanical processing of the RFCs can generate a list of all RFCs supported by an Aries implementation.

Name / Link Implementation Notes