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Reasonable Kiwi


This is more of a brain-dump than a good and proper document.

So, Reasonable is about building a third-party service that people can use to privately store reasons or comments about actions they take or took on Twitter. Notably, blocks and mutes, but also follows, so may as well be generic. The private part is very important, because those reasons could be highly sensitive, contain personal information, and generally may be used for more harassment than not. That's ironic, but also terrible, so this is important.

So, okay, just stick the reasons in a DB, make it visible only to the user when they login using Twitter OAuth 3-party flow, done! Right?

Not quite. The threat model is not just "the public", it's also people hacking the service and dumping the DB, or reading data through exploits, by which point if the only protection is a login token then everyone is thouroughly boned. The design outlined below protects against that. It also protects in a limited fashion against the "attacker is myself" scenario, whereupon I turn evil and start reading everyone's stuff.

There's two other vectors which are much harder to guard against, but I should mention them here for completeness:

  1. People hacking the service and staying in there while e.g. tracing processes or something. There's a limited amount of protection against this, but this is pretty much a nightmare scenario tbh.

  2. People hacking the Twitter account and logging into Reasonable via those credentials. There's basically no protection against this.

One way to protect against these would be to make Reasonable a desktop or mobile app instead, that keeps the data entirely local. That adds other problems, though, foremost about processing power, storage space, backup, sync, etc. Another option would be to provide another key to Reasonable and doing end-to-end encryption, such that the key never leaves the browser or app. There would still be some risk to data not encrypted with the personal key (see below). However, that would also add a significant barrier to using the service, and may even lure into bad security if the user's end-to-end passphrase is weak! Nonetheless, either or both of these could be an option way down the line, maybe, or someone else could do it (for the separate app thing). For now let's just acknowledge these last two threats as fairly unmitigable.

So, the key insight here is that it's possible for an app to store an extremely small amount of data (~100 bytes) on a Twitter user's account in such a way that it's completely hidden from every other party except:

  1. The user themself, and
  2. Any other app authorised to read the account.

That way is: private lists.

That is, an app can create a private list with no members, and set the name/title and the description of the list to arbitrary strings. Then the app can retrieve the list of lists from the user, and the description, and retrieve the stored data that way.

There's a very strict limit of characters on both the title and the description of a list. Also, we probably want to have some kind of recognisable text there so the user doesn't assume it's garbage and delete the list (which could e.g. lock them out). So that limits things even more. What I ended up doing, after a bit of experimenting, was:

  • Title: Reasonable key (pls keep)
  • Description: Don't change! ➡️ $ENCODED_KEY

The encoded key is some random bytes encoded with qntm's Base65536. Now, the readme for that project explains that for modern tweets, base2048 should be used instead, because of how Twitter does its character counting. But it turns out that list descriptions still use Twitter's old character counting, so base65535 is the correct choice!

So now we have a crypto key that only the user and any authorised apps can read. That's good if we're the only app there, but not so good in the much more common case where that's not the case. It's also no good if the user decides to screenshot the key or their list of lists and post it somewhere.

So to protect against that, we encrypt the key with Reasonable's key. Now only Reasonable, in co-operation with the user, can read the key.

After that, "all" that's needed is to chain and layer crypto both ways (down from the user's key, and up from Reasonable's key), and we're in business!

Some of the perhaps overkill things I've done / thought of:

  • Reasonable would be built and deployed as a single binary. There would be an "arch" assymetric keypair and an additional "check" public key built inside the binary itself. Then at runtime, a "master" symmetric key would be provided via the environment, signed by the private "check" key and encrypted by the "arch" keys. On application boot, the master key would be decrypted then its signature checked. That is likely the most overkill, unnecessary, and fiddly part, but the idea was to prevent someone obtaining hold of the binary or the source and getting the keys to the kingdom.

  • Primary keys in the database are UUIDs to avoid lookup-ability and any sense of natural ordering.

  • A user's twitter ID needs to be stored fairly accessibly to lookup a user while login and for most operations. But there's no need to store the actual user ID in plain text. Instead, we can concat the twitter ID and the master key, then hash the lot, and that gives us something we can match and index!

  • We also need to store a user's Twitter access key and secret for the API interactions. Again, no need to store in plain text, just encrypt a small structure with the master key, and open it only on demand when the keys are needed.

  • At that point we have access to their personal key and can open their actual reasons, write new ones, modify existing ones, etc. To do any kind of searching requires fairly opaque indexes, with more hashing to both enable the indexing while guaranteeing privacy.

  • For now I figured it would be enough, esp for a proof of concept, but in the future it may be wise to consider a key rotation scheme per user that doesn't involve re-encrypting every object.

Crypto is done with sodium.


Getting started

Most of Reasonable will fail to build without the presence of the ARCH_KEYS variable in the build environment. Those keys should be generated with the arch_keygen binary, thus:

$ cargo run --bin arch_keygen >> .env

The arch public key will be printed out. Copy that onto the next command:

$ cargo run --bin master_keygen $ARCH_PUBLIC_KEY >> .env

Now you can run usual cargo commands by prefixing them with dotenv, which you can install with cargo. You'll also need the diesel tool. Install both as needed with:

$ cargo install dotenv --features cli
$ cargo install diesel_cli

Then start postgres, create a database, and add it to the .env, e.g.:


Checking out

While the above setup need only be done the once, some steps should be done whenever new code is pulled:

  • Run migrations:

    $ diesel migration run
  • TBC


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