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Solving the key exchange problem

This article describes the importance of the key exchange problem, gives an overview of previous attempts to solve it, and introduces a new approach which is used in the Mute secure messaging system — the trustless keyserver.

A trustless keyserver is a keyserver which distributes public keys without the ability to perform a man-in-the-middle attack or to withhold keys. If the presented trustless keyserver tries to cheat once for one user, the user's client can prove it, thereby undermining the trust of all users in the system. That is, using a trustless keyserver does not only allow to exchange public keys without trust in a third party, but also has a clear attribution in case of attacks.

The content of this article was presented at Hackers congress Paralelní Polis 2015 [slides]. It follows the presentation closely, but gives additional explanations which are not contained on the slides.

Importance of the key exchange problem

Alice and Bob have this thing going on...

Alice, Bob, and Eve

We consider the classic couple in cryptography: Alice and Bob.

...and they don't like Eve!

Alice, Bob, no Eve

Alice and Bob want to communicate over an insecure channel without evil Eve spying on them. The method to do so is encryption.

Encryption: introduction

“Conventional” symmetric encryption uses one key for encryption and decryption and therefore a secure channel is needed for the key exchange.

In contrast, public-key encryption is asymmetric and uses key pairs (a public and a private key).

Something encrypted for a given public key can only be decrypted by the corresponding private key. The reverse operation is a digital signature: something encrypted (signed) by a private key can only be decrypted (verified) by the corresponding public key.

To use public-key encryption Alice and Bob only have to exchange their corresponding public keys. Therefore it easy to conclude: public-key encryption solves the key exchange problem. But it turns out: public-key encryption solves the still has a key exchange problem! Why is that?

Keyserver: distributing public keys


A classic method to exchange public keys is to use a keyserver. A keyserver is a repository for public keys. The public keys are usually bound to identities. Alice and Bob can query the keyserver for the public key of the other party.

Man-in-the-middle attack / evil keyserver

Evil keyserver

The problem with such a setup are various scenarios where Eve performs a man-in-the-middle-attack (MITM) or the keyserver is evil. The problem is always the same: Alice doesn't get Bob's public key (and vice versa), but another public key where Eve knows the corresponding private key. The resulting communication is still encrypted, but for a private key that Eve knows and can be used by her to decrypt the encrypted messages.

Key exchange: harder than expected

During the development of public-key cryptography the key distribution / key exchange problem was considered a minor one. But: after the complicated mathematics was solved the key exchange problem remained challenging. A good description of the events during the development of public-key cryptography can be found in the book Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, Steven Levy, 2001.

Now let us look at previous attempts to solve the key exchange problem and their shortcomings...

Previous attempts

Signing keyserver

Signing keyserver

Instead of distributing the plain public keys of Alice and Bob, the keyserver signs them with his own public key. If Alice and Bob know the signature key of the keyserver, they can verify that the public keys have not been tampered with by Eve's MITM attack.

Public-key infrastructure (e.g., in SSL)


The above scenario can be blown up to setups of arbitrary complexity. Welcome to the world of public-key infrastructure (PKI). But no matter the complexity of the setup, one problem always remains: Alice and Bob have to trust a third party.

PKI problem (e.g., NSA)

PKI problem

PKI is the key exchange method that is used for SSL, and compromising the certificate authority is exactly the approach organizations like the NSA are using to gain access to encrypted SSL traffic. Many such cases have been documented (see Wikipedia for links).

Therefore key exchange methods which require trust in a third party should be avoided.

Manual fingerprint comparison: idea (used for PGP)

Fingerprint idea

Another approach Alice and Bob can use to make sure the correct key has been exchanged is to compare a so-called fingerprint of their public keys using a side-channel. It is absolutely necessary that the communication on the side-channel cannot be tampered with. That is, Alice and Bob either have to meet in person or use voice connection to compare the fingerprint. This approach is used by PGP and other messaging apps like Threema.

Manual fingerprint comparison: reality (also PGP)

Fingerprint reality

While the approach is perfectly fine in theory, it is very inconvenient in practice. Users often do not perform the manual fingerprint comparison and thereby leave the encryption system open to a MITM attack.

Web-of-trust / WOT (used for PGP)


In a web-of-trust (WOT) the trust Alice and Bob have in one more more other parties is transferred to the key of the other parties by a signature. In a very simplified scenario, Alice and Bob both trust one other party Trent who did a manual fingerprint comparison with them and signed their public keys. When Alice trusts Trent and has compared his public key fingerprint manually then the trust Trent has in Bob's public key (gained by manual fingerprint comparison) and which is expressed by Trent's signature of Bob's key is transferred to Alice. That is, Alice believes that way that she has Bob's real public key.

Web-of-trust problem (nobody likes keyparties)

WOT problem

In reality, a WOT looks more like the picture above which exemplifies some common problems with it: Some nodes are not connected at all or are in isolated subgraphs. In such cases it is not possible to employ the WOT for communication partners without a path connecting them in the graph. And even if there is a connection between two nodes, the semantics of trust transfer is not a clear one: If A trusts B, B trusts C, C trusts D, and D trusts E, what does that mean about the trust of A in a E's public key?

Namecoin / Blockchains (Hashchains)


A blockchain is a data structure which is common in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Namecoin which links so-called blocks together with hashes in a way that prevents unnoticed modifications of earlier blocks. The blocks can contain internal data and links to external data (by embedding a hash of the external data into the block).

Namecoin / Blockchain problems (for key exchange)

Blockchains have very interesting properties but they are not a cure-all!

If we consider Namecoin, which has very interesting properties when used as an alternative to DNS or as an information registration system, as a means of key exchange it becomes clear that it is not well-suited for the task:

  • It is not possible to revoke keys.
  • A chain simulation attack has no attribution.
  • Long confirmation times for key updates.
  • Enumeration of all user IDs is easily possible.

And that's only half the picture...

In addition to the key exchange problem described above, secure (asynchronous) messaging for the 21th century also needs:

  • An identity-key binding with human-readable identities which transparently maps to long-term keys. Manual key refreshes (as are common with PGP) are problematic.
  • Perfect forward secrecy (PFS): Old messages should remain unreadable when long-term keys are lost.
  • PFS needs a secure distribution of short-term keys.
  • Ideally: The PFS setup should be possible with a one-way handshake (for convenience reasons).
  • Secure updates of long-term keys should be possible.

These are all key exchange / key distribution problems!

A new approach

A trustless keyserver

Trustless keyserver

Nevertheless, a hashchain can be used successfully a a building block for our trustless keyserver. In that case, The hashchain is used to store long-term identities and pointers to long-term keys (initial ones and updates). The actual key material itself is stored in an external repository which is linked to from the hashchain.

A trustless keyserver in action

Trustless keyserver in action

In contrast to most cryptocurrencies which employ a distributed consensus, our trustless keyserver design employes an explicit consensus: Communicating parties in the system are always exchanging the latest hashchain entry with each other (unbeknownst to the keyserver). This allows them to verify that they have the same state of the hashchain and that they keyserver gives everyone the same chain (more details below).

mutekeyd overview

mutekeyd overview

They trustless keyserver mutekeyd used in Mute actually has two repositories: The Key Repository stores long-term keys (referred to in the hashchain) and the KeyInit Repository stores short-term keys (not referred to in the hashchain), which are used to set up PFS-communication with a one-way handshake. In addition to the last hashchain entry, clients also exchange new keys in messages to continue PFS-communication (see message specification for details).

Trustless keyserver implementation in Mute

The trustless keyserver has the following properties:

  • Exchange of last hashchain entries is an explicit consensus.
  • It fixes the web-of-trust: The model has clear semantic and no manual intervention is required, trust is in a few contacts is transferred to all of them.
  • It allows to prevent leaking of contacts to keyserver: Clients always download the whole hashchain. The retrieval of long-term keys can be obfuscated by retrieving additional (unwanted keys)
  • The enumeration of all user IDs in the hashchain is not possible due to encrypted user IDs in the hashchain which make an explicit search necessary. That is, instead of simply enumerating all user IDs a spammer has to apply a dictionary attack. See keyserver specification for details.
  • There will never be forks in the hashchain. This allows for quick key updates. A fork in the hashchain (two different blocks with the same previous block) would mean the keyserver cheated and at least one client would have proof of that (a signature from the keyserver).

Availability of the design:

  • The client source-code is open (BSD-style license).
  • The protocols are open and the specifications are published (most importantly, the keyserver specification).
  • The key server source is closed, but since the keyserver is trustless the correct behavior of the keyserver can be checked by the client and clients gain proof of misbehavior, if it should occur.

For the actual message encryption we use a modified Axolotl ratchet (used in TextSecure): See message specification.

mutekeyd trustless keyserver walk-through

The following is a walk-through to the operations that happen, if Alice and Bob are establishing a secure communication channel via the trustless keyserver:

  1. Alice and Bob download the hashchain of the keyserver.
  2. Alice searches hashchain to check if is free.
  3. Alice sends UIDMessage with SIGKEY to keyserver to register the user ID
  4. Keyserver adds UIDMessage to hashchain and replies with signature.
  5. Alice sends PFS-keys to KeyInit repository.
  6. Alice updates hashchain to check that was added.
  7. Alice tells Bob (who registered about her new ID.
  8. Bob updates his hashchain and searches for
  9. Bob fetches one of Alice's PFS-keys from the KeyInit repository.
  10. Bob sends PFS-message to Alice which contains his own keys (long-term and short-term).
  11. Alice can reply without contacting the keyserver. Only a hashchain search is necessary to verify the validity of Bob's keys.

See also: Example of a complete Keyserver use-case.


  • All keyserver operations are handled transparently by the client.
  • Users only have to exchange human-readable, unique identities (e.g.,, the retrieval and management of the key-material happens automatically in a way that doesn't require trust in any third party.
  • User clients ensure that the trustless keyserver is indeed trustworthy.
  • If the keyserver cheats once for one user, the client can prove it. This leads to a clear attribution in case of attacks!
  • Updates of long-term signature keys happen transparently to the user.
  • The trustless keyserver design requires that the message protocol is intertwined with keyserver protocol, it is not a drop-in replacement for other key exchange mechanisms.


The secure messaging application Mute uses the trustless keyserver design described in this document:

The author wants to acknowledge Jonathan Logan for the trustless keyserver design described in this article.