So how *do* you validate (NIST) ECDH public keys?

In the wake of the recent critical security vulnerabilities in some JOSE/JWT libraries around ECDH public key validation, a number of implementations scrambled to implement specific validation of public keys to eliminate these attacks. But how do we know whether these checks are sufficient? Is there any guidance on what checks should be performed? The answer is yes, but it can be a bit hard tracking down exactly what validation needs to be done in which cases. For modern elliptic curve schemes like X25519 and Ed25519, there is some debate over whether validation should be performed at all in the basic primitive implementations, as the curve eliminates some of the issues while high-level protocols can be designed to eliminate others. However, for the NIST standard curves used in JOSE, the question is more clear cut: it is absolutely critical that public keys are correctly validated, as evidenced by the linked security alert.

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Updating OpenAM’s encryption

Updated 30th March 2017 to reflect updated information (see comments), add additional links and add some clarifying text about why misuse-resistance is useful.

With the impending release of the ForgeRock Identity Platform, I thought I’d spend some time writing up a few of the bits of OpenAM 14 that I was directly involved with creating. One of my last acts before leaving FR to go solo, was to put in place the first phase of modernising AM’s aging system credential encryption scheme. Before I start, I should say that this encryption scheme is not used for encrypting user passwords (which are hashed by the LDAP user store, not AM). Instead, this scheme is used for encrypting various system credentials (passwords for SMTP servers, HMAC shared secrets, etc) in the config store and in exported system configurations and in a few other places.

The original (and still default) encryption method was first mentioned in Dante’s Inferno. Actually it dates from the original iPlanet codebase from the mid-90s, and uses correspondingly ancient cryptographic algorithms (MD5 and DES). It is best to regard it as providing only limited obfuscation of credentials, rather than any true security guarantees, and the advice has always been to secure the config store by traditional means (TLS, access controls) rather than rely on this encryption. Still, we can do much better than this now, so AM 14 ships with a new AESWrapEncryption scheme that provides significantly improved security:

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Should you use JWT/JOSE?

In the wake of some more recent attacks against popular JSON Web Token (JWT)/JSON Object Signing and Encryption (JOSE) libraries, there has been some renewed criticism of the JWT/JOSE standards themselves (see also discussion on with an excellent comment from Thomas Ptacek summarising some of the problems with the standard). Given these criticisms, should you use JOSE at all? Are articles like my recent “best practices” one just encouraging adoption of bad standards that should be left to die a death?

Certainly, there are lots of potential gotchas in the specs, and it is easy for somebody without experience to shoot themselves in the foot using these standards. I agree with pretty much all of the criticisms levelled against the standards. They are too complicated with too many potentially insecure options. It is far too easy to select insecure combinations or misconfigure them. Indeed, much of the advice in my earlier article can be boiled down to limiting which options you use, understanding what security properties those options do and do not provide, and completely ignoring some of the more troublesome aspects of the spec. If you followed my advice of using “headless” JWTs and direct authenticated encryption with a symmetric key, you’d end up not far off from the advice of just encrypting a JSON object with libsodium or using Fernet.

So in that sense, I am already advocating for not really using the specs as-is, at least not without significant work to understand them and how they fit with your requirements. But there are some cases where using JWTs still makes sense:

  • If you need to implement a standard that mandates their use, such as OpenID Connect. In this case you do not have much of a choice.
  • If you need to interoperate with third-party software that is already using JWTs. Again, in this case you also do not have a choice.
  • You have complex requirements mandating particular algorithms/parameters (e.g. NIST/FIPS-approved algorithms) and don’t want to hand-roll a message format or are required to use something with a “standard”. In this case, JWT/JOSE is not a terrible choice, so long as you know what you are doing (and I hope you do if you are in this position).

If you do have a choice, then you should think hard about whether you need the complexity of JWTs or can use a simpler approach that takes care of most of the choices for you or store state on the server and use opaque cookies. In addition to the options mentioned in the referenced posts, I would also like to mention Macaroons, which can be a good alternative for some authorization token use-cases and the existing libraries tend to build on solid foundations (libsodium/NaCl).

So, should you use JWT/JOSE at all? In many cases the answer is no, and you should use a less error-prone alternative. If you do need to use them, then make sure you know what you are doing.

Critical thinking for software engineers

I am sometimes asked whether doing a PhD was worth it, given that I left academia and research to become a full-time software developer. My answer is an unequivocal “yes”, despite the fact that my thesis is about as relevant to what I do now as a book on the sex lives of giraffes.

By far the most important skill I learnt during that time was not any particular technical knowledge, but rather a general approach to critical thinking—how to evaluate evidence and make rational choices. In a profession such as software engineering, where we are constantly bombarded with new technologies, products and architectural styles, it is absolutely essential to be able to step back and evaluate the pros and cons to form sensible technology choices. In this post I’ll try and summarise the approach I take to making these decisions.

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Bloom Filter session logout – some numbers

The previous post on Stateless Session Logout in OpenAM 13 has proved to be quite popular in terms of this blog. While it went into some detail about the technology and the problems that need to be solved in a production system, it was a bit short on actual figures to illustrate the gains. In this post we will rectify that with some theoretical numbers on memory usage and some measurements from early performance testing.

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Ephemeral elliptic curve Diffie-Hellman key agreement in Java

Update 2 (17th May, 2017): I’ve written some notes on correctly validating ECDH public keys

Update (20th April, 2017): I’ve noticed that this article gets by far the most daily hits on my blog. This worries me that people are using this code as a template for building real ECDHE key agreement, when it was only intended as a guide to the Java API. There are a lot of details in safe construction of such a protocol. More secure alternatives than to trying to roll this yourself include the various complete protocols listed at the end of the article. With that said, we’ll get back to the original article:

Diffie-Hellman key agreement (DH) is a way for two parties to agree on a symmetric secret key without explicitly communicating that secret key. As such, it provides a way for the parties to negotiate a shared AES cipher key or HMAC shared secret over a potentially insecure channel. It does not by itself provide authentication, however, so it is vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks without additional measures. There are several ways to provide these additional measures (e.g. signing the ephemeral public keys using a CA-issued certificate, or using a protocol like OTR), but we will not discuss them here, or go into the details of how the key agreement works. Java provides support out-of-the-box for both original discrete log DH and elliptic curve (ECDH) key agreement protocols, although the latter may not be supported on all JREs. ECDH should be preferred for any new applications as it provides significantly improved security for reasonable key sizes.

elliptic curve
An elliptic curve defined by y2 = x3 – 2x + 2
As is often the case in Java, the use of these classes can be a bit convoluted. Here we demonstrate simple Java code for ECDH key agreement on the command line. We only demonstrate ephemeral key agreement, in which the two parties generate unique public/private key pairs at the start of the protocol and throw them away once the shared secret has been negotiated. This can form the basis for perfect forward secrecy.

WARNING: the code here is not a complete security protocol and should be used for reference on the Java API only.

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Stateless Session Logout in OpenAM 13

One of the headline new features in OpenAM 13 is support for Stateless Sessions, which allow for essentially unlimited horizontal scalability of your session infrastructure. This is achieved by moving session state out of the data store and placing it directly on the client as a signed and encrypted JWT. Any server in the cluster can then handle any request to validate a session token locally by simply validating the signature on the JWT and checking that the token has not yet expired (using the expiry timestamp baked into the token itself). Stateless sessions are not in themselves a new concept, and there are a handful of implementations out there. You may be thinking “Great! Where do I sign?”, but there has been an Achilles’ heel with stateless that has held it back from being truly production-ready — how to handle logout. The general advice is that stateless logout is very hard or impossible. Well, we’re not afraid of a bit of hard work at Forgerock, so we decided to solve that problem. In this post I’ll tell you how we did it.

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