[messaging] Multiple devices and key synchronization: some thoughts

Michael Rogers michael at briarproject.org
Fri Jan 2 01:35:23 PST 2015

I'd like to add a 5th option to the list. Sorry for top-posting, I'm using a different device. ;-)

* Don't encrypt or sign the messages. Encrypt and authenticate the links between devices.

* A user enrols a new device by pairing it with an existing device over a local channel.

* The existing device introduces the new device to the user's other devices (if any) and the user's contacts' devices. This involves brokering a key exchange between each pair of devices to set up an encrypted and authenticated link.

* The user's devices sync messages among themselves in a p2p fashion, so a message written or received on any device propagates to the others.

* Any of the user's devices can revoke another device's access by propagating a special revocation message. Syncing with the revoked device is suspended until it's paired over a local channel again.


Trevor Perrin <trevp at trevp.net> wrote:

>On Sat, Dec 27, 2014 at 7:23 PM, David Leon Gil <coruus at gmail.com> wrote:
>> So, we all have multiple devices. And any messaging design
>> should work as seamlessly as possible (given the particular
>> design's security goals) for this "multi-device" case.
>Hi David,
>Good topic, I agree on some points and disagree on others.  My analysis:
>Imagine a user has an initial device with a long-term key pair that is
>involved in decrypting messages.  The first question is how to make
>this "decryption-involved key", or at least its output, available to
>the user's other devices.
>There's some nuance to the idea of a "decryption-involved" long-term key, e.g.
> * If you're using a PGP signing key to sign short-lived subkeys I'd
>consider the signing key "decryption-involved", since new devices will
>need to frequently either sign device-specific subkeys or receive
>shared subkeys.
> * If you're using a PGP signing key to *infrequently* sign long-lived
>subkeys, then the subkey is the "decryption involved" key that needs
>to be available to other devices.
>Anyways, short-lived or one-time subkeys / prekeys are a good idea for
>forward secrecy.  However, I don't think they affect the rest of this
>analysis, so I'll ignore them and focus on the decryption-involved key
>Here's a few possibilities for dealing with it:
>(1) The initial device serves as a "decryption gateway" for other
>devices.  For example, users might install a home server to handle
>decryption, and configure their devices to access messages through it.
>(2) All devices have device-specific decryption-involved keys, and
>cross-sign each other's keys.
>(3) All devices have device-specific decryption-involved keys, and a
>master device uses a signing key to authorize subordinate devices.
>(4) The initial device copies its decryption-involved key pair to
>other devices, which become peers.
>I think (1) might have some uses, but isn't a "consumer-grade" user experience.
>(2) has the potential benefit that old devices could be revoked and
>new devices could be added to the cross-signed set.  However, this
>adds a level of complexity that seems impractical:
> * The user ceases to have a single public-key and fingerprint, and
>instead has an evolving "cloud" of cross-signed keys.  It's not clear
>how you would apply public-key verification like TOFU or
>fingerprint-validation in this case.
> * Adding a new device requires acquiring a cross-signature from all
>existing devices, which is awkward and has to be managed carefully so
>users can't be tricked into signing wrong keys.
> * Revoking or expiring old keys has less value than one might think.
>Revocation data might not arrive, and expiration depends on time sync
>which is a dangerous assumption for reliability and security reasons.
>The UX and security considerations for signing a key (3) and
>transferring a private key (4) are similar: in either case, the
>receiving device would provide and authenticate a public key (e.g.
>over a "local channel"), and the sending device would either sign it
>(3) or encrypt the decryption-involved private key to it (4).
>(4) is simpler and more efficient, since (3) involves transmitting and
>verifying signatures and potentially chains of signatures (if the
>initial device authorizes one device, which authorizes another, etc).
>(4) also doesn't have the master / subordinate distinction, which
>should make it easier for users to understand and work with.
>Signatures give you the possibility of binding subordinate devices to
>a limited set of privileges, but in the text / email scenario I have
>trouble seeing uses for that complexity.  So (4) seems preferable
>You criticized (4) on a few grounds I don't agree with:
> * The Whiteout implementation uses a QR code to display a
>symmetric-key instead of a public-key.  I agree that seems suboptimal,
>but it's not a general problem.
> * You argue that "Anyone who obtains the private key from any device
>can impersonate the user."  That's true in any system, multidevice or
> * You argue "If messages aren't signed, [someone who compromises the
>private key] can (usually) carry out KCI attacks against the account".
>But it's easy to use device-specific key pairs for authenticating the
>remote party, so that compromise of one device doesn't enable
>key-compromise impersonation (KCI) against other devices.
>A second question is how to handle the long-term key pairs used for
>message authentication.  This question is relevant whether
>authentication is done with signatures (e.g. PGP) or key agreement
>(e.g. TextSecure).
>I'd suggest handling the authentication-involved keypair the same as
>the decryption-involved key pair.  In the simplest case, use the same
>"identity" key pair for authentication and decryption, and use (4) to
>share that key pair between devices (TextSecure will do this [1]).
>You mentioned sharing the decryption-involved key per (4), but then
>using cross-signed key pairs for authentication.  You suggest the
>benefit that "Key compromise can be attributed to a device", but I'm
>skeptical that small benefit justifies dragging in the complexity from
>[1] https://moderncrypto.org/mail-archive/messaging/2014/001022.html
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