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---
title: SSL/TLS & Perfect Forward Secrecy
keywords: "tls, ssl, pfs, elliptic curve, cryptography, ecdhe, openssl"
uuid: ec3e8780-4190-4ed0-bcbb-32665846d2f1
tags:
- ssl
---
Once the private key of some HTTPS web site is compromised, an
attacker is able to build a [man-in-the-middle attack][mitm] to
intercept and decrypt any communication with the web site. The first
step against such an attack is the revocation of the associated
certificate through a CRL or a protocol like OCSP. Unfortunately, the
attacker could also have recorded past communications protected by
this private key and therefore decrypt them.
_Forward secrecy_ allows today information to be kept secret even if
the private key is compromised in the future. Achieving this property
is usually costly and therefore, most web servers do not enable it on
purpose. Google recently
[announced support of forward secrecy][announce] on their HTTPS
sites. Adam Langley
[wrote a post with more details on what was achieved][agl] to increase
efficiency of such a mechanism: with a few fellow people, he wrote an
efficient implementation of some elliptic curve cryptography for
OpenSSL.
**UPDATED:** While the content of this article is still technically
sound, ensure you understand it was written by the end of 2011 and
therefore doesn't take into account many important aspects, like the
fall of RC4 as an appropriate cipher.
[TOC]
# Without forward secrecy
To understand the problem when forward secrecy is absent, let's look
at the classic TLS handshake when using a cipher suite like
`AES128-SHA`. During this handshake, the server will present its
certificate and both the client and the server will agree on a _master
secret_.
![TLS full handshake][s2]
[s2]: [[!!images/benchs-ssl/ssl-handshake.png]] "Full TLS handshake"
This secret is built from a 48byte _premaster secret_ generated and
encrypted by the client with the public key of the server. It is then
sent in a _Client Key Exchange_ message to the server during the third
step of the TLS handshake. The _master secret_ is derived from this
_premaster secret_ and random values sent in clear-text with _Client
Hello_ and _Server Hello_ messages.
This scheme is secure as long as only the server is able to decrypt
the _premaster secret_ (with its private key) sent by the
client. Let's suppose that an attacker records all exchanges between
the server and clients during a year. Two years later, the server is
decommissioned and sent for recycling. The attacker is able to recover
the hard drive with the private key. They can now decrypt any session
they recorded: the encrypted premaster secret sent by a client is
decrypted with the private key and the master secret is derived from
it. The attacker can now recover passwords and other sensitive
information that can still be valuable today.
The main problem lies in the fact that the private key is used for two
purposes: **authentication** of the server and **encryption** of a
shared secret. Authentication only matters while the communication is
established, but encryption is expected to last for years.
# Diffie-Hellman with discrete logarithm
One way to solve the problem is to keep using the private key for
authentication but uses an independent mechanism to agree on a shared
secret. Hopefully, there exists a well-known protocol for this: the
[Diffie-Hellman key exchange][dh]. It is a method of exchanging keys
without any prior knowledge. Here is how it works in TLS:
1. The server needs to generate once (for example, with `openssl
dhparam` command):
- ·p·, a large [prime number][prime],
- ·g·, a [primitive root modulo ·p·][primroot] (for every integer
·a· [coprime][coprime] to ·p·, there exists an integer ·k· such
that ·g^k\equiv a\pmod{p}·).
2. The server picks a random integer ·a· and compute ·g^a \mod
p·. After sending its regular _Certificate_ message, it will also
send a _Server Key Exchange_ message (not included in the
handshake depicted above) containing, unencrypted but signed with
its private key for authentication purpose:
- random value from the _Client Hello_ message,
- random value from the _Server Hello_ message,
- ·p·, ·g·,
- ·g^a\mod p=A·.
3. The client checks that the signature is correct. It also picks a
random integer ·b· and sends ·g^b \mod p=B· in a _Client Key
Exchange_ message. It will also compute ·A^b\mod p=g^{ab}\mod p·
which is the _premaster secret_ from which the _master secret_ is
derived.
4. The server will receive ·B· and compute ·B^a\mod p=g^{ab}\mod p·
which is the same _premaster secret_ known by the client.
Again, the private key is only used for authentication purpose. An
eavesdropper will only know ·p·, ·g·, ·g^a\mod p· and ·g^b\mod
p·. Computing ·g^{ab}\mod p· from those values is the
[discrete logarithm][discretelog] problem for which there is no known
efficient solution.
Because the Diffie-Hellman exchange described above always uses new
random values ·a· and ·b·, it is called _Ephemeral Diffie-Hellman_
(EDH or DHE). Cipher suites like `DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA` use this
protocol to achieve _perfect forward secrecy_[^pfs].
[^pfs]: _Perfect forward secrecy_ is an enhanced version of _forward
secrecy_. It assumes each exchanged key are independent and
therefore a compromised key cannot be used to compromise
another one.
To achieve a good level of security, parameters of the same size as
the key are usually used (the security provided by the discrete
logarithm problem is about the same as the security provided by
factorisation of two large prime numbers) and therefore, the
exponentiation operations are pretty slow as we can see in the
benchmark below:
![Graphical comparison of speed with and without DHE][s3]
[s3]: [[!!images/benchs-ssl/dhe-impact.png]] "Performances of stud on 6 cores, with and without DHE with a 1024bit key"
**UPDATED:** The [Logjam attack][] demonstrated that the security of
Diffie-Hellman is lower than expected, notably when the prime is
shared by many servers as this is usually the case. In this case, an
attack against this prime can be precomputed and used to efficiently
break connections using the same prime. Ensure that the DH parameter
matches the size of the associated RSA key (at least 2048 bits).
[Logjam attack]: https://weakdh.org/ "Logjam: How Diffie-Hellman Fails in Practice"
# Diffie-Hellman with elliptic curves
Fortunately, there exists another way to achieve a Diffie-Hellman key
exchange with the help of [elliptic curve cryptography][ecc] which is
based on the algebraic structure of elliptic curves over finite
fields. To get some background on this, be sure to check first
[Wikipedia article on elliptic curves][ec]. Elliptic curve
cryptography allows one to achieve the same level of security than RSA
with smaller keys. For example, a 224bit elliptic curve is believed to
be [as secure as a 2048bit RSA key][compare].
## Some theory
Diffie-Hellman key exchange described above can easily be translated
to elliptic curves. Instead of defining ·p· and ·g·, you get some
elliptic curve, ·y^2=x^3+\alpha x+\beta·, a prime ·p· and a base
point ·G·. All those parameters are public. In fact, while they can be
generated by the server, this is a difficult operation and they are
usually chosen among a set of published ones.
The use of elliptic curves is an extension of TLS described in
[RFC 4492][rfc4492]. Unlike with the classic Diffie-Hellman key
exchange, the client and the server need to agree on the various
paremeters. Most of this agreement is done inside _Client Hello_ and
_Server Hello_ messages. While it is possible to define some arbitrary
parameters, web browsers will only support a handful of predefined
curves, usually NIST P-256, P-384 and P-521. From here, the key
exchange with elliptic curves is pretty similar to the classic
Diffie-Hellman one:
1. The server picks a random integer ·a· and compute ·aG· which will
be sent, unencrypted but signed with its private key for
authentication purpose, in a _Server Key Exchange_ message.
2. The client checks that the signature is correct. It also picks a
random integer ·b· and sends ·bG· in a _Client Key Exchange_
message. It will also compute ·b\cdot aG=abG· which is the
_premaster secret_ from which the _master secret_ is derived.
3. The server will receive ·bG· and compute ·a\cdot bG=abG·
which is the same _premaster secret_ known by the client.
An eavesdropper will only see ·aG· and ·bG· and won't be able to
compute efficiently ·abG·.
Using `ECDHE-RSA-AES128-SHA` cipher suite (with P-256 for example) is
already a huge speed improvement over `DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA` thanks to
the reduced size of the various parameters involved.
Web browsers only support a handful of well-defined elliptic curves,
chosen to ease an efficient implementation. Bodo Möller, Emilia Käsper
and Adam Langley have provided 64bit optimized versions of NIST P-224,
P-256 and P-521 for OpenSSL. To get even more details on the matter,
you can read the end of the
[introduction on elliptic curves][eccintro] from Adam Langley, then a
[short paper from Emilia Käsper][emilia] which presents a 64bit
optimized implementation of the NIST elliptic curve NIST P-224.
## In practice
First, keep in mind that elliptic curve cryptography is not supported
by all browsers. Recent versions of Firefox and Chrome should handle
NIST P-256, P-384 and P-521 but for Internet Explorer on Windows XP,
you are currently out of luck. Therefore, you need to keep accepting
other cipher suites.
You need a recent version of OpenSSL. Support for ECDHE cipher suites
has been added in **OpenSSL 1.0.0**. Check with `openssl ciphers ECDH`
that your version supports them. If you want to use the 64bit
optimized version, you need to run a snapshot of OpenSSL 1.0.1,
configured with `enable-ec_nistp_64_gcc_128` option. A recent GCC is
also required in this case.
Next, you need to choose the appropriate **cipher suites**. If
forward secrecy is an option for you, you can opt for
`ECDHE-RSA-AES128-SHA:AES128-SHA:RC4-SHA` cipher suites which should be
compatible with most browsers. If you really need forward secrecy, you
may opt for
`ECDHE-RSA-AES128-SHA:DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA:EDH-DSS-DES-CBC3-SHA`
instead.
Then, you need to ensure the **order of cipher suites is
respected**. On _nginx_, this is done with `ssl_prefer_server_ciphers
on`. On _Apache_, this is `SSLHonorCipherOrder on`.
**UPDATED:** You need to check **ECDHE support for your web
server**. For _nginx_, the support has been added in 1.0.6 and
1.1.0. The curve selected defaults to NIST P-256. You can specify
another one with `ssl_ecdh_curve` directive. For _Apache_, it has been
added in 2.3.3 and does not exist in the current stable branch. Adding
support for ECDHE is quite easy. You can check
[how I added it in _stud_][stud61]. This issue also exists for DHE
cipher suites, in which case you also might have to specify DH
parameters to use (generated with `openssl dhparam`) using some
special directive or by appending the parameters to the
certificate. Check [Immerda Techblog article][immerda] for more
background about this point.
The implementation of [TLS session tickets][tickets] may be
incompatible with forward secrecy, depending on how they are
implemented. When they are protected by a random key generated at the
start of the server, the same key could be used for months. Some
implementations[^stud] may derive the key from the private key. In
this case, forward secrecy is broken. If forward secrecy is a
requirement for you, you need to either disable tickets or ensure that
key rotation happens often.
[^stud]: For example, this is the case of the implementation I have
proposed for [stud][stud] to enable [sharing of tickets
between multiple hosts][stud30].
Check with `openssl s_client -tls1 -cipher ECDH -connect
127.0.0.1:443` that everything works as expected.
## Some benchmarks
With the help of the [micro-benchmark tool][server-vs-client] that I
developed for my [previous article][dos], we can compare the
efficiency of cipher suites providing forward secrecy:
![Speed comparison with/without DHE/ECDHE][s4]
[s4]: [[!!images/benchs-ssl/ecdhe.png]] "Compared performance for 1000 handshakes of various cipher suites (RSA 2048, DHE, ECDHE, optimized ECDHE)"
I have used a [snapshot of OpenSSL 1.0.1 (2011/11/25)][snapshot]. The
optimized version of ECDHE is the one you get by using
`enable-ec_nistp_64_gcc_128` option when configuring OpenSSL.
[snapshot]: ftp://ftp.openssl.org/snapshot/openssl-1.0.1-stable-SNAP-20111125.tar.gz
Let's focus on the server part. Enabling `DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA` cipher
suite hinders the performance of TLS handshakes by a factor of
3. Using `ECDHE-RSA-AES128-SHA` instead only adds an overhead of
27%. However, if we use the 64bit optimized version, the **cost is
only 15%**. The overhead is only per full TLS handshake. If 3 out of 4
of your handshakes are resumed, you need to adjust the numbers.
Your mileage may vary but the computational cost for enabling perfect
forward secrecy with an ECDHE cipher suite seems a small sacrifice for
better security.
*[CRL]: Certificate Revocation List
*[OCSP]: Online Certificate Status Protocol
*[SSL]: Secure Sockets Layer
*[TLS]: Transport Layer Security
[dos]: [[en/blog/2011-ssl-dos-mitigation.html]] "SSL computational DoS mitigation"
[sslbench1]: [[en/blog/2011-ssl-benchmark.html]] "First round of SSL benchmarks"
[tickets]: [[en/blog/2011-ssl-session-reuse-rfc5077.html]] "Speeding up SSL: enabling session reuse"
[tls]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transport_Layer_Security "TLS on Wikipedia"
[prime]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_number "Prime numbers on Wikipedia"
[primroot]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primitive_root_modulo_n "Primitive root modulo n on Wikipedia"
[coprime]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coprime "Coprime numbers on Wikipedia"
[discretelog]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrete_logarithm "Discrete Logarithm on Wikipedia"
[mitm]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man-in-the-middle_attack "Man-in-the-middle attack on Wikipedia"
[dh]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffie-Hellman "Diffie-Hellman key exchange on Wikipedia"
[ecc]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elliptic_curve_cryptography "Elliptic curve cryptography on Wikipedia"
[ec]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elliptic_curve "Elliptic curves on Wikipedia"
[immerda]: https://tech.immerda.ch/?p=84 "The state of Forward Secrecy in OpenSSL"
[stud]: https://github.com/bumptech/stud "stud, the scalable TLS unwrapping daemon"
[stud30]: https://github.com/bumptech/stud/pull/30 "Sharing tickets with multiple instances of stud"
[stud61]: https://github.com/bumptech/stud/pull/61 "Adding support for ECDHE in stud"
[announce]: http://googleonlinesecurity.blogspot.com/2011/11/protecting-data-for-long-term-with.html "Protecting data for the long term with forward secrecy"
[agl]: http://www.imperialviolet.org/2011/11/22/forwardsecret.html "Forward secrecy for Google HTTPS"
[emilia]: http://research.google.com/pubs/archive/37376.pdf "Fast Elliptic Curve Cryptography in OpenSSL"
[eccintro]: http://www.imperialviolet.org/2010/12/04/ecc.html "Elliptic curves and their implementation"
[compare]: http://www.keylength.com/en/compare/ "Cryptographic key length recommendation"
[rfc4492]: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc4492 "RFC 4492: ECC Cipher Suites for TLS"
[server-vs-client]: https://github.com/vincentbernat/ssl-dos/blob/master/server-vs-client.c "Tool compare processing power needed by client and server"
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