TUCoPS :: Crypto :: key_st~1.txt

The Risks of Key Recovery, Key Escrow, and Trusted 3rd Party Encryption Various Authors

                The Risks of Key Recovery, Key Escrow,
                  and Trusted Third-Party Encryption

                            Hal Abelson [1]
                           Ross Anderson [2]
                         Steven M. Bellovin [3]
                            Josh Benaloh [4]
                             Matt Blaze [5]
                          Whitfield Diffie [6]
                            John Gilmore [7]
                          Peter G. Neumann [8]
                          Ronald L. Rivest [9]
                        Jeffrey I. Schiller [10]
                          Bruce Schneier [11]

                     Final Report -- 27 May 1997 [12]


A variety of ``key recovery,'' ``key escrow,'' and ``trusted
third-party'' encryption requirements have been suggested in recent
years by government agencies seeking to conduct covert surveillance
within the changing environments brought about by new technologies.
This report examines the fundamental properties of these requirements
and attempts to outline the technical risks, costs, and implications
of deploying systems that provide government access to encryption keys.


   * Executive Summary
   * Group Charter
   * 1 Background
        o 1.1 Encryption and the Global Information Infrastructure
        o 1.2 ``Key Recovery'': Requirements and Proposals
   * 2 Key Recoverability: Government vs. End-User Requirements
        o 2.1 Communication Traffic vs. Stored Data
        o 2.2 Authentication vs. Confidentiality Keys
        o 2.3 Infrastructure: Local vs. Third-Party Control
        o 2.4 Infrastructure: Key Certification and Distribution vs.
          Key Recovery
   * 3 Risks and Costs of Key Recovery
        o 3.1 New Vulnerabilities and Risks
             + 3.1.1 New Paths to Plaintext
             + 3.1.2 Insider Abuse
             + 3.1.3 New Targets for Attack
             + 3.1.4 Forward Secrecy
        o 3.2 New Complexities
             + 3.2.1 Scale
             + 3.2.2 Operational Complexity
             + 3.2.3 Authorization for Key Recovery
        o 3.3 New Costs
             + 3.3.1 Operational Costs
             + 3.3.2 Product Design Costs
             + 3.3.3 End-User Costs
        o 3.4 Tradeoffs
             + 3.4.1 Key Recovery Granularity and Scope
   * 4 Conclusions
   * The Authors
   * Notes

Executive Summary

A variety of ``key recovery,'' ``key escrow,'' and ``trusted
third-party'' encryption requirements have been suggested in recent
years by government agencies seeking to conduct covert surveillance
within the changing environments brought about by new technologies.
This report examines the fundamental properties of these requirements
and attempts to outline the technical risks, costs, and implications
of deploying systems that provide government access to encryption keys.

The deployment of key-recovery-based encryption infrastructures to
meet law enforcement's stated specifications will result in
substantial sacrifices in security and greatly increased costs to the
end-user. Building the secure computer-communication infrastructures
necessary to provide adequate technological underpinnings demanded by
these requirements would be enormously complex and is far beyond the
experience and current competency of the field. Even if such
infrastructures could be built, the risks and costs of such an
operating environment may ultimately prove unacceptable. In addition,
these infrastructures would generally require extraordinary levels of
human trustworthiness.

These difficulties are a function of the basic government access
requirements proposed for key-recovery encryption systems. They exist
regardless of the design of the recovery systems - whether the systems
use private-key cryptography or public-key cryptography; whether the
databases are split with secret-sharing techniques or maintained in a
single hardened secure facility; whether the recovery services provide
private keys, session keys, or merely decrypt specific data as needed;
and whether there is a single centralized infrastructure, many
decentralized infrastructures, or a collection of different

All key-recovery systems require the existence of a highly sensitive
and highly-available secret key or collection of keys that must be
maintained in a secure manner over an extended time period. These
systems must make decryption information quickly accessible to law
enforcement agencies without notice to the key owners. These basic
requirements make the problem of general key recovery difficult and
expensive - and potentially too insecure and too costly for many
applications and many users.

Attempts to force the widespread adoption of key-recovery encryption
through export controls, import or domestic use regulations, or
international standards should be considered in light of these
factors. The public must carefully consider the costs and benefits of
embracing government-access key recovery before imposing the new
security risks and spending the huge investment required (potentially
many billions of dollars, in direct and indirect costs) to deploy a
global key recovery infrastructure.

Group Charter

This report stems from a collaborative effort to study the technical
implications of controversial proposals by the United States and other
national governments to deploy large-scale ``key recovery'' systems
that provide third-party access to decryption keys[13]. Insofar as is
possible, we have considered the impact of these policies without
regard to individual encryption schemes or particular government
proposals. Rather, we have attempted to look broadly at the essential
elements of key recovery needed to fulfill the expressed requirements
of governments (as distinct from the features that encryption users
might desire). This report considers the general impact of meeting the
government's requirements rather than the merits of any particular key
recovery system or proposal that meets them. Our analysis is
independent of whether the key-recovery infrastructure is centralized
or widely distributed.

We have specifically chosen not to endorse, condemn, or draw
conclusions about any particular regulatory or legislative proposal or
commercial product. Rather, it is our hope that our findings will shed
further light on the debate over key recovery and provide a
long-needed baseline analysis of the costs of key recovery as
policymakers consider embracing one of the most ambitious and
far-reaching technical deployments of the information age.

Although there are many aspects to the debate on the proper role of
encryption and key recovery in a free society, we have chosen to focus
entirely on the technical issues associated with this problem rather
than on more general political or social questions. Indeed, many have
suggested that the very notion of a pervasive government key recovery
infrastructure runs counter to the basic principles of freedom and
privacy in a democracy and that that alone is reason enough to avoid
deploying such systems. This reasoning is independent of whether the
key-recovery infrastructure is centralized or widely distributed. The
technical nature of our analysis should not be interpreted as an
endorsement of the social merits of government key recovery; in fact,
we encourage vigorous public debate on this question.

1 Background

1.1 Encryption and the Global Information Infrastructure

The Global Information Infrastructure promises to revolutionize
electronic commerce, reinvigorate government, and provide new and open
access to the information society. Yet this promise cannot be achieved
without information security and privacy. Without a secure and trusted
infrastructure, companies and individuals will become increasingly
reluctant to move their private business or personal information

The need for information security is widespread and touches all of us,
whether users of information technology or not. Sensitive information
of all kinds is increasingly finding its way into electronic form.
Examples include:

   * Private personal and business communications, including telephone
     conversations, FAX messages, and electronic mail;
   * Electronic funds transfers and other financial transactions;
   * Sensitive business information and trade secrets;
   * Data used in the operation of critical infrastructure systems
     such as air traffic control, the telephone network, or the power
     grid; and
   * Health records, personnel files, and other personal information.

Electronically managed information touches almost every aspect of
daily life in modern society. This rising tide of important yet
unsecured electronic data leaves our society increasingly vulnerable
to curious neighbors, industrial spies, rogue nations, organized
crime, and terrorist organizations.

Paradoxically, although the technology for managing and communicating
electronic information is improving at a remarkable rate, this
progress generally comes at the expense of intrinsic security. In
general, as information technology improves and becomes faster,
cheaper, and easier to use, it becomes less possible to control (or
even identify) where sensitive data flows, where documents originated,
or who is at the other end of the telephone. The basic communication
infrastructure of our society is becoming less secure, even as we use
it for increasingly vital purposes. Cryptographic techniques more and
more frequently will become the only viable approach to assuring the
privacy and safety of sensitive information as these trends continue.

Encryption is an essential tool in providing security in the
information age. Encryption is based on the use of mathematical
procedures to scramble data so that it is extremely difficult - if not
virtually impossible - for anyone other than authorized recipients to
recover the original ``plaintext.'' Properly implemented encryption
allows sensitive information to be stored on insecure computers or
transmitted across insecure networks. Only parties with the correct
decryption ``key'' (or keys) are able to recover the plaintext

Highly secure encryption can be deployed relatively cheaply, and it is
widely believed that encryption will be broadly adopted and embedded
in most electronic communications products and applications for
handling potentially valuable data.[14] Applications of cryptography
include protecting files from theft or unauthorized access, securing
communications from interception, and enabling secure business
transactions. Other cryptographic techniques can be used to guarantee
that the contents of a file or message have not been altered
(integrity), to establish the identity of a party (authentication), or
to make legal commitments (non-repudiation).

In making information secure from unwanted eavesdropping,
interception, and theft, strong encryption has an ancillary effect: it
becomes more difficult for law enforcement to conduct certain kinds of
surreptitious electronic surveillance (particularly wiretapping)
against suspected criminals without the knowledge and assistance of
the target. This difficulty is at the core of the debate over key

1.2 ``Key Recovery'': Requirements and Proposals

The United States and other national governments have sought to
prevent widespread use of cryptography unless ``key recovery''
mechanisms guaranteeing law enforcement access to plaintext are built
into these systems. The requirements imposed by such government-driven
key recovery systems are different from the features sought by
encryption users, and ultimately impose substantial new risks and

Key recovery encryption systems provide some form of access to
plaintext outside of the normal channel of encryption and decryption.
Key recovery is sometimes also called ``key escrow.'' The term
``escrow'' became popular in connection with the U.S. government's
Clipper Chip initiative, in which a master key to each encryption
device was held ``in escrow'' for release to law enforcement. Today
the term ``key recovery'' is used as generic term for these systems,
encompassing the various ``key escrow,'' ``trusted third-party,''
``exceptional access,'' ``data recovery,'' and ``key recovery''
encryption systems introduced in recent years. Although there are
differences between these systems, the distinctions are not critical
for our purposes. In this report, the general term ``key recovery'' is
used in a broad sense, to refer to any system for assuring third-party
(government) access to encrypted data.

Key recovery encryption systems work in a variety of ways. Early ``key
escrow'' proposals relied on the storage of private keys by the U.S.
government, and more recently by designated private entities. Other
systems have ``escrow agents'' or ``key recovery agents'' that
maintain the ability to recover the keys for a particular encrypted
communication session or stored file; these systems require that such
``session keys'' be encrypted with a key known by a recovery agent and
included with the data. Some systems split the ability to recover keys
among several agents.

Many interested parties have sought to draw sharp distinctions among
the various key recovery proposals. It is certainly true that several
new key recovery systems have emerged that can be distinguished from
the original ``Clipper'' proposal by their methods of storing and
recovering keys. However, our discussion takes a higher-level view of
the basic requirements of the problem rather than the details of any
particular scheme; it does not require a distinction between ``key
escrow,'' ``trusted third-party,'' and ``key recovery''. All these
systems share the essential elements that concern us for the purposes
of this study:

   * A mechanism, external to the primary means of encryption and
     decryption, by which a third party can obtain covert access to
     the plaintext of encrypted data.
   * The existence of a highly sensitive secret key (or collection of
     keys) that must be secured for an extended period of time.

Taken together, these elements encompass a system of ``ubiquitous key
recovery'' designed to meet law enforcement specifications. While some
specific details may change, the basic requirements most likely will
not: they are the essential requirements for any system that meets the
stated objective of guaranteeing law enforcement agencies timely
access, without user notice, to the plaintext of encrypted
communications traffic.

2 Key Recoverability: Government vs. End-User Requirements

Key recovery systems have gained currency due to the desire of
government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to guarantee that
they have access to encrypted information without the knowledge or
consent of encryption users. A properly designed cryptosystem makes it
essentially impossible to recover encrypted data without knowledge of
the correct key. In some cases this creates a potential problem for
the users of encryption themselves; the cost of keeping unauthorized
parties out is that if keys are lost or unavailable at the time they
are needed, the owners of the encrypted data will be unable to make
use of their own information. It has been suggested, therefore, that
industry needs and wants key recovery, and that the kind of key
recovery infrastructure promoted by the government would serve the
commercial world's needs for assuring availability of its own
encrypted data. Several recent government proposals (along with
commercial products and services designed to meet the government's
requirements) have been promoted as serving the dual role of assuring
government access as well as ``owner'' access to encrypted data.
However, the requirements of a government and the requirements of the
commercial world and individual users are very different in this
regard, so different that, in fact, there is little overlap between
systems that address these two problems.

The ultimate goal of government-driven key recovery encryption, as
stated in the U.S. Department of Commerce's recent encryption
regulations, ``envisions a worldwide key management infrastructure
with the use of key escrow and key recovery encryption items.''[15]
The requirements put forward to meet law enforcement demands for such
global key recovery systems include:

   * Third-party/government access without notice to or consent of the
     user. Even so-called ``self-escrow'' systems, where companies
     might hold their own keys, are required to provide sufficient
     insulation between the recovery agents and the key owners to
     avoid revealing when decryption information has been released.
   * Ubiquitous international adoption of key recovery. Key recovery
     helps law enforcement only if it is so widespread that it is used
     for the bulk of encrypted stored information and communications,
     whether or not there is end-user demand for a recovery feature.
   * High-availability, around-the-clock access to plaintext under a
     variety of operational conditions. Law enforcement seeks the
     ability to obtain decryption keys quickly - within two hours
     under current U.S. and other proposed regulations.[16] Few
     commercial encryption users need the ability to recover lost keys
     around the clock, or on such short notice.
   * Access to encrypted communications traffic as well as to
     encrypted stored data. To the extent that there is commercial
     demand for key recovery, it is limited to stored data rather than
     communications traffic.

In fact, the requirements of government key recovery are almost
completely incompatible with those of commercial encryption users. The
differences are especially acute in four areas: the kinds of data for
which recovery is required, the kinds of keys for which recovery is
required, the manner in which recoverable keys are managed, and the
relationship between key certification and key recovery. Government
key recovery does not serve private and business users especially
well; similarly, the key management and key recoverability systems
naturally arising in the commercial world do not adapt well to serve a

2.1 Communication Traffic vs. Stored Data

While key ``recoverability'' is a potentially important added-value
feature in certain stored data systems, in other applications of
cryptography there is little or no user demand for this feature. In
particular, there is hardly ever a reason for an encryption user to
want to recover the key used to protect a communication session such
as a telephone call, FAX transmission, or Internet link. If such a key
is lost, corrupted, or otherwise becomes unavailable, the problem can
be detected immediately and a new key negotiated. There is also no
reason to trust another party with such a key. Key recoverability, to
the extent it has a private-sector application at all, is useful only
for the keys used to protect irreproducible stored data. There is
basically no business model for other uses, as discussed below.

In stored data applications, key recovery is only one of a number of
options for assuring the continued availability of business-critical
information. These options include sharing the knowledge of keys among
several individuals (possibly using secret-sharing techniques),
obtaining keys from a local key registry that maintains backup copies,
careful backup management of the plaintext of stored encrypted data,
or, of course, some kind of key recovery mechanism. The best option
among these choices depends on the particular application and user.

Encrypted electronic mail is an interesting special case, in that it
has the characteristics of both communication and storage. Whether key
recovery is useful to the user of a secure E-mail system depends on
design of the particular system.

The government, on the other hand, proposes a key recovery
infrastructure that applies to virtually all cryptographic keys,
including (especially) those used to protect communications sessions.

2.2 Authentication vs. Confidentiality Keys

Although cryptography has traditionally been associated with
confidentiality, other cryptographic mechanisms, such as
authentication codes and digital signatures, can ensure that messages
have not been tampered with or forged. Some systems provide properties
analogous to those of handwritten signatures, including
``non-repudiation'' - the recipient can prove to a third party that a
message was signed by a particular individual.

Much of the promise of electronic commerce depends on the ability to
use cryptographic techniques to make binding commitments. Yet some key
recovery schemes are designed to archive authentication and signature
keys along with confidentiality keys. Such schemes destroy the
absolute non-repudiation property that makes binding commitments
possible. Furthermore, there are simply no legitimate uses for
authentication or signature key recovery. The private sector requires
distinct keys for all signers, even when two or more individuals are
authorized to send a given message; without that, the ability to audit
transactions is destroyed. Government surveillance does not require
the recovery of signature keys, either.

However, it is difficult to exclude authentication and signature keys
from a key recovery infrastructure of the kind proposed by the
government, because some keys are used for both signature and
encryption.[17] Nor is it sufficient to exclude from the recovery
system keys used only to protect financial transactions, since many
electronic commerce schemes use keys that are general in scope. The
same key might be used, for example, to encrypt personal electronic
mail as well as to electronically sign contracts or authorize funds

It has been claimed that non-availability of a signature key can be a
serious problem for the owner, who will then no longer be able to sign
messages. But common practice allows for the revocation of lost keys,
and the issuance of new keys with the same rights and privileges as
the old ones. Recovering lost signature and authentication keys is
simply never required.

2.3 Infrastructure: Local vs. Third-Party Control

For a key recovery scheme to be of value to the encryption user, it
must allow tight control over depositing, recovering, and maintaining
keys, tied to the user's own practices and requirements. Generally,
only a small number of individuals will need the ability to recover
any individual key, often working in the same location and personally
known to one another. When a key does need to be recovered, it will
frequently be a local matter, similar to the replacement of a
misplaced office key or restoring a computer file with a backup copy.
The hours at which the key recovery might take place, the
identification of the individuals authorized for a particular key, the
policy for when keys should be recovered, and other basic operational
procedures will vary widely from user to user, even within a single
business. Particularly important is the control over when and how
``recoverable'' keys are destroyed when they are no longer needed,
especially for keys associated with sensitive personal and business

Similarly, there is usually no business need for secrecy in the
recovery of keys or for the ability to obtain keys without the initial
cooperation of the user. When key recovery is used in a business
environment, it would generally be one component of the overall data
management policy of that business. Users would normally be trusted to
participate in assuring recoverability of their own keys, assisted by
local management practices and supervision. When a key must be
recovered, it will usually be because the users themselves realize
that they do not have a copy of the correct key or because the
keyholder is no longer available. Even the frequently-cited
hypothetical example of the disgruntled employee who refuses to
decrypt important files is probably most reliably and economically
dealt with through business data management practices (such as
management supervision and backup of business-critical plaintext) that
do not require any centralized, standard key recovery mechanism. Even
in this (rather unusual) case, there is no need to hide from the user
the fact that a key has been recovered.

The U.S. government, on the other hand, proposes key recovery schemes
that by their nature do not allow local control. The government's
requirement for the ability to covertly recover keys on short notice
and without notice to the key owner must almost by definition be
implemented by a third party whose procedures are entirely divorced
from those of the users. Even when the government permits an
organization to manage its own keys, the key recovery agent will have
to be fairly centralized and remote from the actual users. This
requirement eliminates the first line of defense against misuse of key
recovery: the vigilance of the most concerned party - the key owner.

2.4 Infrastructure: Key Certification and Distribution vs. Key

As electronic commerce and encryption use becomes more widespread,
some form of ``Certification Authorities'' (CAs) will be needed in
some applications to help identify encryption users. A CA is a trusted
party that vouches for the identity (or some other attribute) of an
encryption user. It is widely believed that development and use of
certification authorities will be essential for secure and trusted
electronic exchanges - and, consequently, will become a prerequisite
to participation in electronic commerce and online communications.[18]

Although superficially similar, in that they are both concerned with
key management, the nature of key recovery is completely different
from that of key certification. The most important function of a
certification authority is to certify the public keys used in digital
signatures; key recovery, on the other hand, is concerned with keys
used for confidentiality. More importantly, the operation of a
certification authority does not require handling sensitive user data;
a CA generally handles only users' public keys and never learns the
associated secret keys. If a CA's secret key is compromised or
revealed, the only direct damage is that the certificates from it can
be forged. On the other hand, if a key recovery agent's secrets are
compromised, the damage can be far greater and more direct: every user
of that recovery agent might have its own secrets compromised.

Certification can (and currently does) exist without any form of key
recovery. Conversely, a key recovery infrastructure can exist
completely independently of any key certification infrastructure.

Several recent government proposals have attempted to associate key
recovery with key certification. This proposed linkage between CAs and
key recovery makes no sense technically. On the contrary, such
linkages have serious liabilities. It is not even clear whether such a
system would work. To the extent it might require depositing keys used
for signature and identification, such systems create additional
security risks; there is no justification (even given government law
enforcement requirements) for third-party access to signature keys
that, if compromised, could be used to impersonate people, or to forge
their digital signatures. In fact, attempts at achieving key recovery
through a certification infrastructure would likely be ineffective at
meeting the goals of law enforcement. Many (indeed, most) encryption
keys are not certified directly, and therefore would be beyond the
reach of a certification-based recovery system.

3 Risks and Costs of Key Recovery

Key recovery systems are inherently less secure, more costly, and more
difficult to use than similar systems without a recovery feature. Key
recovery degrades many of the protections available from encryption,
such as absolute control by the user over the means to decrypt data.
Furthermore, a global key recovery infrastructure can be expected to
be extraordinarily complex and costly.

The impact of key recovery can be considered in at least three

   * Risk - The failure of key recovery mechanisms can jeopardize the
     proper operation, underlying confidentiality, and ultimate
     security of encryption systems; threats include improper
     disclosures of keys, theft of valuable key information, or
     failure to be able to meet law enforcement demands.
   * Complexity - Although it may be possible to make key recovery
     reasonably transparent to the end users of encryption, a fully
     functional key recovery infrastructure is an extraordinarily
     complex system, with numerous new entities, keys, operational
     requirements, and interactions. In many cases, the key recovery
     aspects of a system are far more complex and difficult to
     implement than the basic encryption functions themselves.
   * Economic Cost - No one has yet described, much less demonstrated,
     a viable economic model to account for the true costs of key
     recovery. However, it is still possible to make sound qualitative
     judgments about the basic system elements, shared by all key
     recovery schemes, that will have the most dramatic impact on the
     cost of designing, implementing, deploying, and operating such

3.1 New Vulnerabilities and Risks

Any key recovery infrastructure, by its very nature, introduces a new
and vulnerable path to the unauthorized recovery of data where one did
not otherwise exist. This introduces at least two harmful effects:

   * It removes the inherent guarantees of security available through
     non-recoverable systems, which do not have an alternate path to
     sensitive plaintext that is beyond the users' control.
   * It creates new concentrations of decryption information that are
     high-value targets for criminals or other attackers.

These risks arise with cryptography used in communication and storage,
but perhaps even more intensely with cryptography used in
authentication. (They are compounded even further if any keys are used
for more than one of these purposes.)

3.1.1 New Paths to Plaintext

Regardless of the implementation, if key recovery systems must provide
timely law enforcement access to a whole key or to plaintext, they
present a new and fast path to the recovery of data that never existed

The key recovery access path is completely out of the control of the
user. In fact, this path to exceptional access is specifically
designed to be concealed from the encryption user, removing one of the
fundamental safeguards against the mistaken or fraudulent release of

In contrast, non-recoverable systems can usually be designed securely
without any alternative paths. Alternative paths to access are neither
required for ordinary operation nor desirable in many applications for
many users.

3.1.2 Insider Abuse

Like any other security system with a human element, key recovery
systems are particularly vulnerable to compromise by authorized
individuals who abuse or misuse their positions. Users of a key
recovery system must trust that the individuals designing,
implementing, and running the key recovery operation are indeed
trustworthy. An individual, or set of individuals, motivated by
ideology, greed, or the threat of blackmail, may abuse the authority
given to them. Abuse may compromise the secrets of individuals,
particular corporations, or even of entire nations. There have been
many examples in recent times of individuals in sensitive positions
violating the trust placed in them. There is no reason to believe that
key recovery systems can be managed with a higher degree of success.

The risk of ``insider abuse'' becomes even more evident when attempts
are made to design key recovery schemes that are international in
scope. Such abuse can even become institutionalized within a rogue
company or government. National law-enforcement agencies, for example,
might abuse their key recovery authority to the advantage of their own
country's corporations.

3.1.3 New Targets for Attack

The nature of key recovery creates new high-value targets for attack
of encryption systems. Key recovery agents will maintain databases
that hold, in centralized collections, the keys to the information and
communications their customers most value. In many key recovery
systems, the theft of a single private key (or small set of keys) held
by a recovery agent could unlock much or all of the data of a company
or individual. Theft of a recovery agent's own private keys might
provide access to an even broader array of communications, or might
make it possible to easily spoof header information designed to ensure
compliance with encryption export controls. The key recovery
infrastructure will tend to create extremely valuable targets, more
likely to be worth the cost and risk of attack.

The identity of these new rich targets will be highlighted by the key
recovery systems themselves. Every encrypted communication or stored
file will be required to include information about the location of its
key retrieval information. This ``pointer'' is a road map showing law
enforcement how to recover the plaintext, but it may also show
unauthorized attackers where to focus their efforts. Moreover, even
those systems (such as split key systems) that can decrease these
risks, do so with a marked increase in cost. For example, splitting a
key in half at least doubles the recovery agent costs.[19] Such
systems require multiple agents, costly additional coordination
mechanisms, and faster response times necessary to assemble split keys
and still provide fast access to plaintext. Regardless of how many
times a key is split, law enforcement's demand for timely access will
still require the development of fast systems for the recovery of key
parts. Both the systems for key part assembly, and the ultimate whole
key assembled for law enforcement, will present new points of

3.1.4 Forward Secrecy

Key recovery is especially problematic in communications systems, such
as encrypted cellular telephone calls, because it destroys the
property of forward secrecy. A system with forward secrecy is one in
which compromising the keys for decrypting one communication does not
reduce the security of other communications. For example, in an
encrypted telephone call, the keys for encrypting a call can be
established as the call is set up. If these keys are destroyed when
the call is over, the participants can be assured that no one can
later decrypt that conversation--even if the keys to some subsequent
conversation are compromised. The result is that once the call is
over, the information required to decrypt it ceases to exist; not even
the parties to the call store the keys. Typically, keys are created
and destroyed on a per-call basis, or even many times per call. This
makes it possible to limit the costs and risks of secure processing
and storage to the period of the call itself.

Forward secrecy is desirable and important for two reasons. First, it
simplifies the design and analysis of secure systems, making it much
easier to ensure that a design or implementation is in fact secure.
Secondly, and more importantly, forward secrecy greatly increases the
security and decreases the cost of a system, since keys need to be
maintained and protected only while communication is actually in

Key recovery destroys the forward secrecy property, since the ability
to recover traffic continues to exist long after the original
communication has occurred. It requires that the relevant keys be
stored instead of destroyed, so that later government requests for the
plaintext can succeed. If the keys are stored, they can be
compromised; if they are destroyed, the threat of compromise ceases at
that moment.

3.2 New Complexities

Experience has shown that secure cryptographic systems are deceptively
hard to design and build properly. The design and implementation of
even the simplest encryption algorithms, protocols, and
implementations is a complex and delicate process. Very small changes
frequently introduce fatal security flaws. Non-key recovery systems
have rather simple requirements and yet exploitable flaws are still
often discovered in fielded systems.

Our experiences designing, analyzing and implementing encryption
systems convince us that adding key recovery makes it much more
difficult to assure that such systems work as intended. It is
possible, even likely, that lurking in any key recovery system are one
or more design, implementation, or operational weaknesses that allow
recovery of data by unauthorized parties. The commercial and academic
world simply does not have the tools to properly analyze or design the
complex systems that arise from key recovery.

This is not an abstract concern. Most of the key recovery or key
escrow proposals made to date, including those designed by the
National Security Agency, have had weaknesses discovered after their
initial implementation. For example, since the system's introduction
in 1993, several failures have been discovered in the U.S. Escrowed
Encryption Standard, the system on which the ``Clipper Chip'' is
based. These problems are not a result of incompetence on the part of
the system's designers. Indeed, the U.S. National Security Agency may
be the most advanced cryptographic enterprise in the world, and it is
entrusted with developing the cryptographic systems that safeguard the
government's most important military and state secrets. The reason the
Escrowed Encryption Standard had flaws is that good security is an
extremely difficult technical problem to start with, and key recovery
adds enormous complications with requirements unlike anything
previously encountered.

3.2.1 Scale

Key recovery as envisioned by law enforcement will require the
deployment of secure infrastructures involving thousands of companies,
recovery agents, regulatory bodies, and law enforcement agencies
worldwide interacting and cooperating on an unprecedented scale.

Once widely available, encryption will likely be used for the bulk of
network communications and storage of sensitive files. By the year
2000 - still early in the adoption of information technologies -
fielding the ubiquitous key recovery system envisioned by law
enforcement could encompass:

   * Thousands of products. There are over 800 encryption products
     worldwide today, and this number is likely to grow dramatically.
   * Thousands of agents all over the world. Proposed systems
     contemplate many key recovery agents within this country alone;
     other countries will want agents located within their borders.
     Large companies will want to serve as their own key recovery
     agents. Each of these agents will need to obtain U.S.
     certification and possibly certification by other countries as
   * Tens of thousands of law enforcement agencies. There are over
     17,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the
     United States alone that might seek key information for
     authorized wiretaps or seized data.[20] National and local
     agencies around the world will also want access to keys.
   * Millions of users. Several million Web users today use encrypted
     communications whenever their Web browser encounters a secure
     page (such as many of those used for credit card transactions).
     There will be an estimated 100 million Internet users by the year
     2000, most of whom will be likely to regularly encrypt
     communications as part of the next version of the standard
     Internet protocols. Millions of other corporate and home computer
     users will also regularly encrypt stored information or
     intra-network communications.
   * Tens of millions (or more) of public-private key pairs. Most
     users will have several public key pairs for various purposes.
     Some applications create key pairs ``on-the-fly'' every time they
     are used.
   * Hundreds of billions of recoverable session keys. Every encrypted
     telephone call, every stored encrypted file, every e-mail
     message, and every secure web session will create a session key
     to be accessed. (Various key recovery scheme may avoid the need
     for the recovery center to process these session keys
     individually, but such ``granularity shifts'' introduce
     additional risk factors - see Section 3.4.1 below.)

Ultimately, these numbers will grow further as improved information
age technologies push more people and more data online.

The overall infrastructure needed to deploy and manage this system
will be vast. Government agencies will need to certify products. Other
agencies, both within the U.S. and in other countries, will need to
oversee the operation and security of the highly-sensitive recovery
agents - as well as ensure that law enforcement agencies get the
timely and confidential access they desire. Any breakdown in security
among these complex interactions will result in compromised keys and a
greater potential for abuse or incorrect disclosures.

There are reasons to believe secure key recovery systems are not
readily scalable. Order-of-magnitude increases in the numbers of
requesting law enforcement agencies, product developers, regulatory
oversight agencies, and encryption end users all make the tasks of
various actors in the key recovery system not only bigger, but much
more complex. In addition, there are significant added transaction
costs involved with coordination of international key recovery regimes
involving many entities.

The fields of cryptography, operating systems, networking, and system
administration have no substantive experience in deploying and
operating secure systems of this scope and complexity. We simply do
not know how to build a collective secure key-management
infrastructure of this magnitude, let alone operate one, whether the
key-recovery infrastructure is centralized or widely distributed.

3.2.2 Operational Complexity

The scale on which a government-access key recovery infrastructure
must operate exacerbates many of the security problems with key
recovery. The stated requirements of law enforcement demand the
construction of highly complex key recovery systems. Demands on the
speed and process for recovering keys will greatly increase the
complexity of tasks facing those trusted with key recovery
information. Demands for ubiquitous worldwide adoption of key recovery
will greatly increase the complexity and number of entities involved.
Each of these will in turn have a significant impact on both the
security and cost of the key recovery system.

Consider the tasks that a typical key recovery center will perform to
meet one law enforcement request for a session key for one
communication or stored file:

   * Reliably identify and authenticate requesting law enforcement
     agents (there are over 17,000 U.S. domestic law enforcement
   * Reliably authenticate court order or other documentation.
   * Reliably authenticate target user and data.
   * Check authorized validity time period.
   * Recover session key, plaintext data, or other decryption
   * Put recovered data in required format.
   * Securely transfer recovered data, but only to authorized parties.
   * Reliably maintain an audit trail.

Each of these tasks must be performed securely in a very short period
of time in order to meet government requirements. For example, the
most recent U.S. Commerce Department regulations governing recovery
agents require two hour turnaround of government requests, around the
clock. The tasks must be performed by agents all over the world
serving millions of clients and responding to requests from both those
clients and numerous law enforcement agencies.

There are few, if any, secure systems that operate effectively and
economically on such a scale and under such tightly-constrained
conditions - even if these requirements are relaxed considerably
(e.g., one day response time instead of two hours). The urgent rush
imposed by very short retrieval times, and the complexity of the tasks
involved, are an anathema to the careful scrutiny that should be
included in such a system. If there is uncertainty at any step of the
access process, there may be insufficient time to verify the
authenticity or accuracy of a retrieval request.

It is inevitable that a global key recovery infrastructure will be
more vulnerable to fraudulent key requests, will make mistakes in
giving out the wrong key, and will otherwise compromise security from
time to time. While proper staffing, technical controls, and sound
design can mitigate these risks to some extent (and at considerable
cost), the operational vulnerabilities associated with key recovery
cannot be eliminated entirely.

3.2.3 Authorization for Key Recovery

One of the requirements for a key recovery operation is that it must
authenticate the individual requesting an archived key. Doing so
reliably is very difficult.

``Human'' forms of identification - passports, birth certificates, and
the like - are often easily counterfeited. Indeed, news reports
describe ``identity theft'' as a serious and growing problem.
Electronic identification must be cryptographic, in which case a key
recovery system could be used to attack itself. That is, someone who
steals - or recovers - a signature key for a law enforcement officer
or a corporate officer could use this key to forge legitimate requests
for many other keys. For that matter, if a sensitive confidentiality
key were stolen or obtained from the repository, it might be possible
to use it to eavesdrop on other key recovery conversations.

In contrast, a business's local, day-to-day key recovery process could
rely on personal identification. A system administrator or supervisor
would know who had rights to which keys. Even more questionable
requests, such as those over the phone, could be handled
appropriately; the supervisor could weigh such factors as the
sensitivity of the information requested, the urgency of the request
as known a priori, and even the use of informal authentication
techniques, such as references to shared experiences. But none of
these methods scale well to serve requests from outside the local
environment, leaving them unsuitable for use by larger operations or
when requests come from persons or organizations not personally known
to the keyholders.

3.3 New Costs

Key recovery, especially on the scale required for government access,
will be very expensive. New costs are introduced across a wide range
of entities and throughout the lifetime of every system that uses
recoverable keys.

The requirements set out by law enforcement impose new system costs
for designing, deploying, and operating the ubiquitous key recovery
system. These costs include:

   * Operational costs for key recovery agents - the cost of
     maintaining and controlling sensitive, valuable key information
     securely over long periods of time; of responding to both law
     enforcement requests and legitimate commercial requests for data;
     and of communicating with users and vendors.
   * Product design and engineering costs - new expenses entailed in
     the design of secure products that conform to the stringent key
     recovery requirements.
   * Government oversight costs - substantial new budgetary
     requirements for government, law enforcement, or private
     certification bodies, to test and approve key recovery products,
     certify and audit approved recovery agents, and support law
     enforcement requests for and use of recovered key information.
   * User costs - including both the expense of choosing, using, and
     managing key recovery systems and the losses from lessened
     security and mistaken or fraudulent disclosures of sensitive

3.3.1 Operational Costs

The most immediately evident problem with key recovery may be the
expense of securely operating the infrastructure required to support
it. In general, cryptography is an intrinsically inexpensive
technology; there is little need for externally-operated
``infrastructure'' (outside of key certification in some applications)
to establish communication or store data securely. Key recovery, on
the other hand, requires a complex and poorly understood - and hence
expensive and insecure - infrastructure.

The operational complexity described in the previous section
introduces substantial ongoing costs at each key recovery center.
These costs are likely to be very high, especially compared with the
ordinary operational expenses that might be expected in commercial key
recovery systems. Government key recovery requires, for example,
intensive staffing (7x24 hours), highly trained and highly trusted
personnel, and high-assurance hardware and software systems in order
to meet the government's requirements in a secure manner. Theses costs
are borne by all encryption applications, even those where key
recovery is not beneficial to the user or even to law enforcement.

It remains unclear whether the high-risk, high-liability business of
operating a key recovery center, with limited consumer demand to date,
will even be economically viable.

3.3.2 Product Design Costs

Key recovery also increases the difficulty and expense of designing
user-level encryption software and hardware. These costs vary
depending on the particular application and the precise nature of the
recovery system, but could be substantial in some cases. Integrating
key recovery, especially in a secure manner, can also substantially
delay the release of software. Given the highly competitive nature and
short product life-cycles of today's hardware and software markets,
such delays could discourage vendors from incorporating it at all, or
worse, encourage sloppy, poorly-validated designs. Compatibility with
older products presents special challenges and further increases these

3.3.3 End-User Costs

Without government-driven key recovery, encryption systems can easily
be fielded in a way that is largely transparent to their users. Highly
secure communication and storage need require nothing further than the
purchase of a reputable commercial product with strong encryption
features tested in the marketplace. The use of that encryption need
require nothing more than the setting of an option, the click of an
icon, or the insertion of a hardware card. We are fully confident
that, in an unregulated marketplace, many applications will ship with
such high-quality user-transparent encryption built in. This is
already happening at negligible cost to the user.

In contrast, the use of a secure key recovery system requires at least
some additional user effort, diligence, or expense. In addition to the
purchase of an encryption product, one or more key recovery agent(s)
must be chosen. The user must enter into an important (although
possibly implicit) contractual relationship with that agent, a
relationship that will govern the potential disclosure of the most
sensitive key information - now and for years to come. In many cases,
there will need to be some communication of key information between
user and the recovery agent. (Although some products will come with a
built-in key, prudent users may want to change their keys on a regular
basis. Also, software, especially mass-market ``shrink-wrapped''
software, cannot usually be economically distributed with unique keys
installed in each individual copy).

The burdens on key recovery users continue long after data have been
encrypted. Key recovery agents will maintain the ability to decrypt
information for years. During that time, an agent might relax its
security policies, go bankrupt, or even be bought out by a competitor
- but will retain, and in fact must retain, the ability to decrypt.
Diligent and concerned encryption users will need to be aware of the
fate of their key recovery agents for years after their initial
encryption use.

These burdens will apply to all users of encryption. Each use of
encryption may entail the entry into a contractual relationship with a
third-party key recovery agent. Under any rational business model,
each such instance will entail some additional cost.

3.4 Tradeoffs

Some aspects of key recovery can be easily shifted along a spectrum
from higher cost to higher risk. While it may be possible to field a
particular key escrow system in a relatively secure way, this often
results in tremendous costs to the user. While relatively simple and
inexpensive key escrow systems exist, they often jeopardize security.
For example, a poorly-run key recovery agent, employing less-skilled
low-paid personnel, with a low level of physical security, and without
liability insurance could be expected to be less expensive to operate
than a well-run center.

Interestingly, security and cost can also be traded off with respect
to the design itself. That is, the simplest designs, those that are
easiest to understand and easiest to verify, also tend to require the
most stringent assumptions about their environment and operation or
have the worst failure characteristics. For example, imagine a design
in which session keys are sent to the recovery center by encrypting
them with the center's globally-known public key. Such a system might
be relatively simple to design and implement, and one might even be
able to prove that it is secure when operated correctly and under
certain assumptions. However, this is among the worst possible designs
from a robustness point of view: it has a single point of failure (the
key of the recovery agent) with which all keys are encrypted. If this
key is compromised (or a corrupt version distributed), all the
recoverable keys in the system could be compromised. (We note that
several commercial systems are based on almost exactly this design.)

3.4.1 Key Recovery Granularity and Scope

One of the most important factors influencing the cost and security
of key recovery is the granularity and scope of the keys managed by
the key recovery system. In particular, it is important to understand
two issues:

   * Granularity: the kinds of keys (user, device, session, etc.) that
     are recoverable.
   * Scope: the consequences of compromising a recovery agent's key.

Granularity is important because it defines how narrowly-specified the
data to be recovered from an agent can be and how often interactions
(by the user and by law enforcement) with the recovery agent must take
place. Various systems have been proposed in which the recovery agent
produces ``master'' keys that can decrypt all traffic to or from
individual users or hardware devices. In other systems, only the keys
for particular sessions are recovered. Coarse granularity (e.g., the
master key of the targeted user) allows only limited control over what
can be recovered (e.g., all data from a particular individual) but
requires few interactions between law enforcement and the recovery
center. Finer granularity (e.g., individual session keys), on the
other hand, allows greater control (e.g., the key for a particular
file or session, or only sessions that occurred within a particular
time frame), but requires more frequent interaction with the recovery
center (and increased design complexity).

Also important is the scope of the recovery agent's own secret. Most
key recovery systems require the user software or hardware to send
keys to the recovery agent by encrypting them with the recovery
agent's public key. If a recovery agent has only a single such key,
that key becomes an extraordinarily valuable, global, single point of
failure. Worse, because the recovery agent must use the secret
component of this key in order to decrypt the keys sent to it (or at
least any time a key is recovered), its exposure to compromise or
misuse is also increased. To address this vulnerability, a recovery
agent may have many such keys, perhaps one or more for each user.
However, negotiating and distributing these keys to the users
introduces still other complexities and vulnerabilities.

4 Conclusions

Key recovery systems are inherently less secure, more costly, and more
difficult to use than similar systems without a recovery feature. The
massive deployment of key-recovery-based infrastructures to meet law
enforcement's specifications will require significant sacrifices in
security and convenience and substantially increased costs to all
users of encryption. Furthermore, building the secure infrastructure
of the breathtaking scale and complexity that would be required for
such a scheme is beyond the experience and current competency of the
field, and may well introduce ultimately unacceptable risks and costs.

Attempts to force the widespread adoption of key recovery through
export controls, import or domestic use regulations, or international
standards should be considered in light of these factors. We urge
public debate to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of
government-access key recovery before these systems are deployed.

The Authors

     Harold (Hal) Abelson is a Professor in the EECS department at MIT
     and a Fellow of the IEEE. He is co-author of the textbook
     Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and the 1995
     winner of the IEEE Computer Society's Education Award. Abelson is
     currently on leave from MIT at Hewlett-Packard Corporation, where
     he serves as scientific advisor to HP's Internet Technology

     Ross Anderson teaches and directs research in computer security,
     cryptology and software engineering at Cambridge University in
     England. He is an expert on engineering secure systems, how they
     fail, and how they can be made more robust. He has done extensive
     work on commercial cryptographic systems, and recently discovered
     flaws in a British government key escrow protocol.

     Steven M. Bellovin is a researcher on cryptography, networks and
     security at AT&T Laboratories. He is co-author of the book
     Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker. In
     1995 he was a co-recipient of the Usenix Lifetime Achievement
     Award for his part in creating Netnews. He is a member of the
     Internet Architecture Board.

     Josh Benaloh is a Cryptographer at Microsoft Research and has
     been an active researcher in cryptography for over a decade with
     substantial contributions in the areas of secret-ballot elections
     and secret sharing methods and applications. Before joining
     Microsoft, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of
     Toronto and an Assistant Professor at Clarkson University.

     Matt Blaze is a Principal Research Scientist at AT&T Laboratories
     in the area of computer security and cryptology. In 1994 he
     discovered several weaknesses in the U.S. government's
     ``Clipper'' key escrow system. His research areas include
     cryptology, trust management, and secure hardware. In 1996 he
     received the EFF's Pioneer Award for his contributions to
     computer and network security.

     Whitfield Diffie is a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems
     specializing in security. In 1976 Diffie and Martin Hellman
     created public key cryptography, which solved the problem of
     sending coded information between individuals with no prior
     relationship and is the basis for widespread encryption in the
     digital information age.

     John Gilmore is an entrepreneur and civil libertarian. He was an
     early employee of Sun Microsystems, and co-founded Cygnus
     Solutions, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Cypherpunks,
     and the Internet's ``alt'' newsgroups. He has twenty years of
     experience in the computer industry, including programming,
     hardware and software design, and management.

     Peter G. Neumann is a Principal Scientist in the Computer Science
     Lab at SRI. He is Moderator of the Risks Forum (comp.risks),
     author of Computer-Related Risks (Addison-Wesley), and co-author
     of the National Research Council study report, Cryptography's
     Role in Securing the Information Society (National Academy
     Press). He is a Fellow of the AAAS, ACM and IEEE.

     Ronald L. Rivest is the Webster Professor of Electrical
     Engineering and Computer Science in MIT's EECS Department. He is
     also an Associate Director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer
     Science. He is perhaps best known as a co-inventor of the RSA
     public-key cryptosystem and a founder of RSA Data Security, Inc.

     Jeffrey I. Schiller is the Network Manager at MIT and has managed
     the MIT campus computer network since its inception in 1984.
     Schiller is the author of the Kerberos Authentication System,
     serves as the Internet Engineering Steering Group's Area Director
     for Security, and is responsible for overseeing security-related
     Working Groups of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

     Bruce Schneier is president of Counterpane Systems, a
     Minneapolis-based consulting firm specializing in cryptography
     and computer security. He is the author of Applied Cryptography
     and inventor of the Blowfish encryption algorithm.


[1] MIT Laboratory for Computer Science/Hewlett-Packard, <hal@mit.edu>

[2] University of Cambridge, <ross.anderson@cl.cam.ac.uk>

[3] AT&T Laboratories - Research, <smb@research.att.com>

[4] Microsoft Research, <benaloh@microsoft.com>

[5] AT&T Laboratories - Research, <mab@research.att.com>

[6] Sun Microsystems, <diffie@eng.sun.com>

[7] <gnu@toad.com>

[8] SRI International, <neumann@sri.com>

[9] MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, <rivest@lcs.mit.edu>

[10] MIT Information Systems, <jis@mit.edu>

[11] Counterpane Systems, <schneier@counterpane.com>

[12] The latest version of this document can be found on the
world-wide-web at <http://www.crypto.com/key_study>, in PostScript
format at <ftp://research.att.com/dist/mab/key_study.ps> and in ASCII
text format at <ftp://research.att.com/dist/mab/key_study.txt>.

[13] This report grew out of a group meeting at Sun Microsystems in
Menlo Park, CA in late January 1997, including many of the authors and
also attended by Ken Bass, Alan Davidson, Michael Froomkin, Shabbir
Safdar, David Sobel, and Daniel Weitzner. The authors thank these
other participants for their contributions, as well as the Center for
Democracy and Technology for coordinating this effort and assisting in
the production of this final report.

[14] The National Research Council's comprehensive 1996 report on
cryptography includes a detailed examination of the rising importance
of encryption. National Research Council, Cryptography's Role in
Securing the Information Society (1996).

[15] Dept. of Commerce, ``Interim Rule on Encryption Items,'' Federal
Register, Vol. 61, p. 68572 (Dec. 30, 1996)

[16] For example, the recent British ``Trusted Third-Party'' system
proposes similar law enforcement demands, requiring one hour
turnaround time for TTP recovery agents. See U.K. Department of Trade
OF ENCRYPTION SERVICES,'' (March 1997) (Public Consultation Paper).

[17] In fact, it is technically straightforward for two parties to use
their authentication keys to negotiate encryption keys for secure
communication. Any system that distributes trusted authentication keys
would ipso facto serve as an infrastructure for private communication
that is beyond the reach of government surveillance.

[18] There is a great deal of debate about the appropriate role of
government in regulating CAs. CAs may ultimately be large,
centralized, or even government-certified entities, or smaller,
locally-trusted entities. At this early stage in their deployment, no
consensus has emerged on what government role is appropriate. For an
excellent overview of the debate over CA regulation, see Michael
Froomkin, ``The Essential Role of Trusted Third-Parties in Electronic
Commerce,'' 75 Oregon L. Rev. 49 (1996).

[19] Storage of a smaller key part is not necessarily cheaper than
storage of the whole key, and the preferred key-splitting methods
generally produce key parts each of which is as large as the whole

[20] U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1995 (1996), p. 39.

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