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Auth Working Group A. Pavlin
Internet-Draft KA2DDO
Intended status: Experimental May 13, 2015
Expires: April 14, 2016
Authenticated APRS Messaging
This document describes a means of using HMAC digests to legally
authenticate clear-text messages and commands sent over Amateur
Radio's Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) radio and Internet
Status of This Memo
This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the
provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.(IETF)
Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Amateur Radio Engineering
Task Force (ARETF). Note that other groups may also distribute
working documents as Internet-Drafts.
Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months
and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
time. It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference
material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."
This Internet-Draft will expire on April 14, 2016.
Copyright Notice
Copyright (c) 2015 ARETF 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
( 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 Simplified BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of
the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as
described in the Simplified BSD License.
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1. Introduction
Although the amateur radio service is prohibited by national and
international law from using encryption to conceal the content of
amateur radio traffic, it is permitted to use publicly documented
codes and ciphers over radio to authenticate access for authorized
users to amateur radio facilities. This document describes a means
of using Hashed Message Authentication Code (HMAC) digests to
authenticate clear-text messages and telecommand directions sent over
the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) radio and Internet
networks created and maintained by the worldwide community of amateur
radio operators.
2. Review of the APRS Protocol
The APRS protocol [APRS101] is a common and worldwide means of
sending short digital messages over amateur radio, using the AX.25
protocol frame structure and its Carrier Sense Multiple Access-
Collision Detection (CSMA-CD) physical layer as a wrapper for the
application-level APRS packets. APRS can also be tunneled through
the Internet, as implemented by the APRS-IS network of servers acting
as application-level routers between Internet gateway (I-gate) radio
stations. The APRS packet structure itself is a short ASCII-text
format, where the initial character of the frame body identifies the
formatting and content type of the rest of the packet. Packet
senders are identified with amateur radio callsigns, optionally with
a secondary station identifier (SSID) number. Stations may also be
identified with tactical callsign aliases, as long as the sender's
government-issued callsign appears somewhere in the message text.
APRS uses flood-fill multicast transmission over shared channels so
that all nearby APRS receivers can hear the transmissions, thereby
all receiving information updates simultaneously in real-time.
Because there is no transport-level confirmation of successful
message receipt of these unreliable datagrams, APRS messages are
retransmitted on a periodic interval with updates to the latest state
of the transmitting station, such that even if some datagrams are
lost, the receiving stations will have reasonably up-to-date state
APRS has been deployed for nearly 20 years, and is supported by many
types of stations, from conventional personal computers connected
through terminal-node controllers (TNCs, effectively radio modems)
and with readily updated software, to dedicated tracker devices and
commercially manufactured radio transceivers with flash ROM
programmed firmware. The latter devices cause some of the
difficulties with APRS, as they cannot be easily upgraded to support
new concepts in the APRS protocol suite, and may not be implemented
robustly enough to survive incompatible protocol changes. As such,
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APRS has a large burden of backwards compatibility, as the protocol
cannot be changed in ways that break these legacy stations.
The four most commonly seen messages in the APRS protocol are:
o position reports, reporting the current location of a station by
latitude and longitude, with a station type and additional
descriptive information appended;
o MicE position reports, using a more compact and less human-
readable yet still ASCII-text encoding scheme to carry the same
information as position reports;
o object reports, carrying the same information as a position
report, but describing something that does not have a radio
station attached to it (such as a weather formation, navigation
device for other than the amateur service, etc.);
o arbitrary short text messages, sent either to a single receiving
station, to a group, or to all locally listening stations.
All of these messages are limited in length not only due to the
maximum frame length of the AX.25 protocol, but
to keep each ASCII-text packet visible on a single line of a
computer display or radio control panel for ease of manual
to not overload limited-capacity small microcontroller
implementations of APRS, and
to conserve bandwidth and reduce the probability of frame
collisions on amateur radio bands that restrict the maximum baud
rate to 9600 baud or less.
3. The APRS Text Message>
The APRS text message, described in chapter 14 of the APRS protocol
specification [APRS101], allows sending arbitrary short text
messages, similar to cellphone texting. The format of a APRS text
message is:
| 1 | 9 | 1 | 1 to 67 characters | 1 | 1-5 |
| : | addressee | : | variable length message text | { | message no |
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where the literal colon characters at the 1st and 11th positions
identify the message type as a text message and delimit the end of
the space-padded addressee's identifier, and the trailing literal
curly brace and message "number" string are optional and used to
identify a specific message from the originating station (identified
outside the message body in the wrapping frame structure) so that the
receiving station can acknowledge receipt, using a responding APRS
text message addressed to the sending station with the message text
being the reserved pattern "ack" followed immediately by only the
message "number" string of the original message; "ack" messages
cannot have message numbers of their own. This provides a limited
form of application level transmission confirmation to improve
reliability of text messages, allowing retransmission of dropped
messages without wasting channel bandwidth retransmitting messages
that have been already successfully received.
Given this limited message size, and the fact that the shared radio
channel does not provide reliability, privacy, nor authentication (a
"pirate" station could transmit using another station's identifier),
there is a challenge in providing authentication while remaining
fully backwards-compatible with the existing APRS infrastructure.
4. Theory for Authentication
Digitally signing each message (and including the signature in the
same APRS message datagram) would seem to be the obvious solution.
However, conventional Internet signature schemes create a signature
whose binary length is longer than the maximum text body character
length of an APRS text message. To still have a reasonable-sized
payload in the APRS message, the signature (after encoding into 7-bit
ASCII text, to be compatible with all legacy stations) would need to
be less than half the maximum message text length. As such, a
simpler solution is needed.
Message digests provide reliability to messages similar to checksums
by providing a hash that could only come from the original message or
a very few radically different messages, none of which could be
reverse-engineered from the digest or hash. The common signature
schemes use this technique, adding an encryption key to the message
data to be digested, such that the hash could not be re-calculated
without knowing both the original message text and the key (which is
not transmitted in-the-clear with the message text). Some signature
schemes are based on private-public key pairs, and bundle the public
key into the signature, radically increasing its size.
However, if the key is a secret key known to both the sender and
receiver and identified by the sending station's identification, that
identification would not need to be included in the signature, since
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the sending station's identification is already in the message
wrapper. This is the technique used by Hashed Message Authentication
If such text messages are used to send telecommand directives to the
receiving station, there is another risk that a man-in-the-middle
(MITM) attack could occur by later replaying a recorded command and
spoofing the sending station's identification. This can be solved by
timestamping the message and including the timestamp in the text to
be digested. Because APRS is a real-time network, we can assume the
message needs to be processed immediately upon receipt and does not
need the timestamp explicitly in the clear-text; the receiving
station can assume "now" as the time. The timestamp does have to be
quantized broadly enough to allow for propagation delay in the
network, but not so broadly that an attacker would have time to issue
a spoofed MITM replay attack.
5. Implementation
The proposed implementation for transmission is:
1. At the time of original transmission, the APRS text message does
not yet contain a signature. A Hashed Message Authentication
Code-Message Digest 5 [HMAC-MD5] engine is initialized with a
secret key known to both the originating and receiving stations,
and then fed the following items (in this order) in a byte
1. The current time, in minutes since the Unix epoch of January
1st, 1970, at the UTC time of midnight, written as a 32-bit
unsigned integer in network (high byte first) order. Note
that the time is always truncated to the last whole minute,
not rounded up if in the last 30 seconds of the minute.
2. The originating callsign in 7-bit ASCII text. If a SSID
suffix is present that does not have the value zero, it is
appended as the ASCII hyphen character (hexadecimal byte 2D)
followed by the numeric suffix in decimal ASCII digits. Note
that some extended APRS identifiers that are not transmitted
over AX.25 can use SSID values that are not in the range 0 to
15 nor even just numeric; those suffixes can be transmitted
in their corresponding ASCII characters.
3. The ASCII greater-than sign ">" (hexadecimal byte 3E).
4. The addressee field from the APRS text message (without
trailing spaces).
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5. The ASCII colon character ":" (hexadecimal byte 3A).
6. The text body of the message (not including the message
sequence number).
2. The resulting digest is obtained from the engine and encoded
using the basic ASCII-85 [ASCII85] encoding scheme into printable
ASCII characters.
3. The APRS text message is modified to insert the following
characters after the message body text and before any message
sequence number:
1. The ASCII backslash character "\" (hexadecimal byte 5C).
2. The ASCII upper case letter "S" (hexadecimal byte 53).
3. The ASCII-85 encoded hash.
No extra delimiting characters are inserted before or after the
above signature encoding.
The proposed implementation for reception is:
1. All incoming APRS messages are associated with their time of
2. If an APRS text message is received that has the following
* A body longer than 7 characters (not counting any message
sequence "number");
* The body ending with the literal characters "\S" (hexadecimal
bytes 5C and 53) followed by 4 to 20 non-blank printable
characters that ASCII-85 decode into a valid 16-byte value.
it is assumed to have an HMAC signature per the above
transmission logic.
3. The key corresponding to the originating station (Section 6) is
obtained and the HMAC-MD5 authentication code is recomputed using
the receive time in minutes since the Unix epoch. The
transmitter's signature (starting at the "\S") is NOT included in
the receiver's HMAC computation.
4. If the hashes do not match, the computation is repeated using a
timestamp one minute earlier than the receive time, under the
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assumption that the originator either sent the message just
barely before the start of the next minute, or that there was
some propagation delay in sending the message.
5. If neither hash matches, but there are other keys associated with
the originating station, the HMAC computation repeats with each
candidate key at the current and previous minutes until either a
match is found or no more suitable keys are available.
If the receiving station does not have any keys that are associated
with the originating station, the signed message is considered
unverified and treated the same as an unsigned message. If the
receiving station has at least one key for the originating station,
but none of the keys produce a matching hash, the message is assumed
to be corrupted, forged, or replayed, and is treated as an error
condition. In particular, telecommand applications should not
process messages that do not have valid verified signatures; whether
to log messages with invalid signatures is a design decision for the
receiving application.
6. Key Management
Because the APRS network is a shared communication channel with many
stations on it, each conducting different independent operations, it
is entirely possible that one station may need to know more than one
key for different functions, such as:
o authenticated point-to-point messaging,
o telecommand,
o identity-verified nets (in the amateur radio sense),
o any other use for transmitting station authentication the end-user
can come up with.
As such, this algorithm proposes a logical keystore kept at each
originating and receiving station using this authentication scheme.
The keystore can contain multiple secret keys; each key is associated
with zero or more other stations' identifiers (callsign-SSID), and
possibly a group multicast identifier. A key's association list can
only contain only a group multicast identifier if no other station
uses the same group identifier to send messages back to the
originating station (i.e., broadcast announcements).
At transmission time, the originating station looks at the addressee
of the message, and sees if there are any keys associated with that
addressee. If more than one key is associated, a tie-breaking
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algorithm is needed. As a proposed tie-breaker, if the addressee is
a single station (and not a multicast group), keys that are also
associated with multicast groups should not be considered as
candidates for transmission signing; such keys should only be used
for signing if the addressee is the entire group. If there are still
multiple keys, the tie-breaker algorithm is TBD, but is proposed to
be a direct query of the human user. Answers to such queries can be
cached for future transmissions to the same addressee by the same
originating station.
At reception time, the receiving station looks for all keys
associated with the originating station's identifier (not by the
addressee). By having all authorized originating stations in the
list for a group multicast identifier, this will confirm that the
claimed sending station both:
1. actually does have the key to sign the message, and
2. is a member of the group (at least, as known by the receiving
Note that the second claim will only be verifiable if the receiving
station confirms the signing key was associated with the group as
well as with the originating station.
This specification explicitly does NOT specify how secret keys are
shared between stations, but expects that they will be transmitted
over channels other than amateur radio, such that the keys remain
secure, thereby preventing any "pirate" station from claiming the
identity of a trusted station and being able to successfully sign
messages with keys known to that trusted station.
7. Design Justifications
This implementation specifically does not follow the replay
protection format proposed in Internet RFC 2085 [RFC2085], as it is
highly possible for messages to be lost in the high-collision
environment of hidden transmitters on the APRS RF networks, so
correctly updating a sequence number on both ends of the lossy
channel would be nearly impossible. Hence, only the timestamp is
used for replay protection, not an additional signing-sequence-
specific sequence number.
Quantizing the timestamp to one-minute resolution and using local
system time at both ends was considered reasonable because
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1. almost all mobile APRS stations are using readily available GPS
receivers, which can provide accurate time (less than 1 second
error at the APRS application level) as well as position.
2. fixed APRS stations that do not have GPS most likely have access
to the Internet, and can therefore use publicly available Network
Time Protocol (NTP) servers to synchronize their system clock to
under a second of error as well.
3. a typical APRS frame can be transmitted in under a second on most
channels (once the channel is clear), so, even with 8 digipeats
(the theoretical maximum amount of RF repeating, which is
generally discouraged in conventional APRS usage), a signed frame
should arrive at the most distant receiving station in under a
minute if it is going to arrive at all (i.e., not lost in
4. it minimizes the number of signature recalculations needed at the
receiving station for message delivery spanning a quantization
5. overflow of the 32-bit time value will not happen for several
centuries, and the originating and receiving stations won't care
anyway since they only care about one value and its immediate
predecessor for any given signed message, so time value wrapping
won't break the algorithm (even if it is still being used in
several centuries).
6. retransmissions due to lost acknowledgements of numbered messages
in a telecommand scenario should be harmless, as most
telecommands are orders for the commanded system to change its
state, hence being told to change to the same state again within
a minute should effectively be no change at all. Telecommands
that do not cause state changes should be completely harmless.
7. Well-behaved APRS digipeaters and I-gates filter out excessively
frequent duplicate messages, so a retransmission (or replay
attack) within the 1 to 2 minute window will likely be discarded
by the relay stations anyway, and a later explicit retransmission
will have a different signature for its new transmission
The letter 'S' following the backslash was not only to indicate that
part of the message body was a signature, but that it was using the
specific HMAC digest algorithm of MD5 specified in this document.
Other printable characters could be used here, theoretically allowing
up to 89 alternate algorithms in future revisions of this
specification. Fewer choices are practically available, since the
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backslash character could appear in the normal message text; a two-
character combination using an unlikely punctuation mark plus a
limited number of following characters with no whitespace was chosen
to reduce the chance of an arbitrary text message appearing to be
signed when it was not.
Ascii-85 encoding was chosen instead of the base-91 encoding used
elsewhere in APRS
1. to ensure reserved printable characters (such as the left curly
brace used to delimit the message sequence number) did not appear
in the encoded hash,
2. base-91 would not produce an encoded string with any fewer
characters than Ascii-85 would with only 16 bytes of binary data,
3. Ascii-85 does allow for some compression in rare cases to make
the signature a character or two shorter,
4. Ascii-85 was more straightforward in converting binary to ASCII
and back,
5. Ascii-85 fit the length of the hash more conveniently, avoiding
issues with leftover bits at decode time.
The message originating station is specifically called out rather
than the transmitting station, as a signed message could be relayed
through the APRS-IS and forwarded to RF by a transmitting I-gate
station. Such a retransmission would have the callsign of the I-gate
(not the originating station) in the AX.25 frame sender field.
Therefore, receiving stations implementing this algorithm must be
aware of this, and search any APRS third-party headers (as documented
in chapter 17 of the APRS protocol specification) for the true
originating station's callsign-SSID.
8. Security Considerations
The security and reliability of this algorithm is based on the
strength of MD5, the synchronization of originating and receiving
station clocks, the correctness of the algorithm implementation and
the application using the results of the algorithm, the security of
key management and distribution, and the strength of the keys used.
Message Digest 5 [MD5] is not the strongest available hash algorithm,
as documented in RFC 2104 [HMAC-MD5]. However, it has the shortest
digest length of any reasonable hash algorithm. Given that APRS is
commonly going over communications channels that cannot typically
exceed 1 packet per second, brute force attacks would take an
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unreasonably long time and would likely be detected by the outraged
amateur radio community long before the attacker successfully
reverse-engineered a key, or at least before the attacker was able to
cause much damage.
9. References
[APRS101] Wade, I., "APRS Protocol Reference, Protocol Version 1.0",
August 2000.
[ASCII85] Wikipedia, "Ascii85", May 2015.
Krawczyk, H., Bellare, M., and R. Canetti, "HMAC: Keyed-
Hashing for Message Authentication", RFC 2104, February
[MD5] Rivest, R., "The MD5 Message-Digest Algorithm", RFC 1321,
April 1992.
[RFC2085] Oehler, M. and R. Glenn, "HMAC-MD5 IP Authentication with
Replay Prevention", RFC 2085, February 1997.
Author's Address
Andrew C. Pavlin
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