2. Securing communications against network adversaries

To withstand network adversaries, peers must verify each other’s keys to establish trustable e2e-encrypted communication. In this section we describe protocols to securely setup a contact, to securely add a user to a group, and to verify key history.

Establishing a trustable e2e-encrypted communication channel is particularly difficult in group communications where more than two peers communicate with each other. Existing messaging systems usually require peers to verify keys with every other peer to assert that they have a trustable e2e-encrypted channel. This is highly unpractical. First, the number of verifications that a single peer must perform becomes too costly even for small groups. Second, a device loss will invalidate all prior verifications of a user. Rejoining the group with a new device (and a new key) requires redoing all the verification, a tedious and costly task. Finally, because key verification is not automatic – it requires users’ involvement – in practice very few users consistently perform key verification.

Key consistency schemes do not remove the need of key verification. It is possible to have a group of peers which each see consistent email-addr/key bindings from each other, yet a peer is consistently isolated by a network adversary performing a machine-in-the-middle attack. It follows that each peer needs to verify with at least one other peer to assure that there is no isolation attack.

A known approach to reduce the number of neccessary key verifications is the web of trust. This approach requires a substantial learning effort for users to understand the underlying concepts, and is hardly used outside specialist circles. Moreover, when using OpenPGP, the web of trust is usually interacting with OpenPGP key servers. These servers make the signed keys widely available, effectively making the social “trust” graph public. Both key servers and the web of trust have reached very limited adoption.

Autocrypt was designed to not rely on public key servers, nor on the web of trust. It thus provides a good basis to consider new key verification approaches. To avoid the difficulties around talking about keys with users, we suggest new protocols which perform key verification as part of other workflows, namely:

  • setting up a contact between two individuals who meet physically, and
  • setting up a group with people who you meet or have met physically.

These new workflows require administrative messages to support the authentication and security of the key exchange process. These administrative messages are sent between devices, but are not shown to the user as regular messages. This is a challenge, because some e-mail apps display all messages (including machine-generated ones for rejected or non-delivered mails) without special rendering of the content. Only some messengers, such as Delta-chat, already use administrative messages, e.g., for group member management.

The additional advantage of using administrative messages is that they significantly improve usability by reducing the overall number of actions to by users. In the spirit of the strong UX focus of the Autocrypt specification, however, we suggest to only exchange administrative messages with peers when there there is confidence they will not be displayed “raw” to users, and at best only send them on explicit request of users.

Note that automated processing of administrative messages opens up a new attack vector: malfeasant peers can try to inject adminstrative messages in order to impersonate another user or to learn if a particular user is online.

All protocols that we introduce in this section are decentralized. They describe how peers (or their devices) can interact with each other, without having to rely on services from third parties. Our verification approach thus fits into the Autocrypt key distribution model which does not require extra services from third parties either.

Autocrypt Level 1 focusses on passive attacks such as sniffing the mail content by a provider. Active attacks are outside of the scope and can be carried out automatically by replacing Autocrypt headers.

Here we aim to increase the costs of active attacks by introducing a second channel and using it to verify the Autocrypt headers transmitted in-band.

We consider targeted active attacks against these protections feasible. However they will require coordinated attacks based for example on infiltrators or real time CCTV footage.

We believe that the ideas explained here make automated mass surveillance prohibitively expensive with a fairly low impact on usability.

2.1. Setup Contact protocol

The goal of the Setup Contact protocol is to allow two peers to conveniently establish secure contact: exchange both their e-mail addresses and cryptographic identities in a verified manner. This protocol is re-used as a building block for the history-verification and verified-group protocols.

After running the Setup Contact protocol, both peers will learn the cryptographic identities (i.e., the keys) of each other or else both get an error message. The protocol is safe against active attackers that can modify, create and delete messages.


Setup Contact protocol step 2 with https://delta.chat.

The protocol follows a single simple UI workflow: A peer “shows” bootstrap data that is then “read” by the other peer through a second channel. This means that, as opposed to current fingerprint verification workflows, the protocol only runs once instead of twice, yet results in the two peers having verified keys of each other.

Between mobile phones, showing and scanning a QR code constitutes a second channel, but transferring data via USB, Bluetooth, WLAN channels or phone calls is possible as well.

Recall that we assume that our active attacker cannot observe or modify data transferred via the second channel.

An attacker who can alter messages but has no way of reading or manipulating the second channel can prevent the verification protocol from completing successfully by droping or altering messages.

An attacker who can compromise both channels can inject wrong key material and convince the peer to verify it.

Sequence diagram of UI and administrative message flow

UI and administrative message flow of contact setup

Here is a conceptual step-by-step example of the proposed UI and administrative message workflow for establishing a secure contact between two contacts, Alice and Bob.

  1. Alice sends a bootstrap code to Bob via the second channel.

    1. The bootstrap code consists of:
    • Alice’s Openpgp4 public key fingerprint Alice_FP, which acts as a commitment to the Alice’s Autocrypt key, which she will send later in the protocol,
    • Alice’s e-mail address (both name and routable address),
    • A type TYPE=vc-invite of the bootstrap code
    • a challenge INVITENUMBER of at least 8 bytes. This challenge is used by Bob’s device in step 2b to prove to Alice’s device that it is the device that the bootstrap code was shared with. Alice’s device uses this information in step 3 to automatically accept Bob’s contact request. This is in contrast with most messaging apps where new contacts typically need to be manually confirmed.
    • a second challenge AUTH of at least 8 bytes which Bob’s device uses in step 4 to authenticate itself against Alice’s device.
    • optionally add metadata such as INVITE-TO=groupname

    b) Per INVITENUMBER Alices device will keep track of: - the associated AUTH secret - the time the contact verification was initiated. - the metadata provided.

  2. Bob receives the bootstrap code and

    1. If Bob’s device already knows a key with the fingerprint Alice_FP that belongs to Alice’s e-mail address the protocol continues with 4b)
    2. otherwise Bob’s device sends a cleartext “vc-request” message to Alice’s e-mail address, adding the INVITENUMBER from step 1 to the message. Bob’s device automatically includes Bob’s AutoCrypt key in the message.
  3. Alice’s device receives the “vc-request” message.

    a) She looks up the bootstrap data for the INVITENUMBER. If the INVITENUMBER does not match then Alice terminates the protocol.

    b) If she recognizes the INVITENUMBER from step 1 she checks that the invite has not expired. If the timestamp associated with the INVITENUMBER is longer ago than a given time Alice terminates the protocol.

    1. She then processes Bob’s Autocrypt key.

    d) She uses this key to create an encrypted “vc-auth-required” message containing her own Autocrypt key, which she sends to Bob.

  4. Bob receive the “vc-auth-required” message, decrypts it, and verifies that Alice’s Autocrypt key matches Alice_FP.

    1. If verification fails, Bob gets a screen message “Error: Could not setup a secure connection to Alice” and the protocol terminates.
    2. Otherwise Bob’s device sends back a ‘vc-request-with-auth’ encrypted message whose encrypted part contains Bob’s own key fingerprint Bob_FP and the second challenge AUTH from step 1.
  5. Alice decrypts Bob’s ‘vc-request-with-auth’ message

    a) and verifies that Bob’s Autocrypt key matches Bob_FP that the invite has not expired and that the transferred AUTH matches the one from step 1.

    b) If any verification fails, Alice’s device signals “Could not establish secure connection to Bob” and the protocol terminates.

  6. If the verification succeeds on Alice’s device

    1. shows “Secure contact with Bob <bob-adr> established”.
    2. sends Bob a “vc-contact-confirm” message.
    3. also removes the data associated with INVITENUMBER.
  7. Bob’s device receives “vc-contact-confirm” and shows “Secure contact with Alice <alice-adr> established”.

At the end of this protocol, Alice has learned and validated the contact information and Autocrypt key of Bob, the person to whom she sent the bootstrap code. Moreover, Bob has learned and validated the contact information and Autocrypt key of Alice, the person who sent the bootstrap code to Bob.

2.1.1. Requirements for the underlying encryption scheme

The Setup Contact protocol requires that the underlying encryption scheme is non-malleable. Malleability means the encrypted content can be changed in a deterministic way. Therefore with a malleable scheme an attacker could impersonate Bob: They would add a different autocrypt key in Bob’s vc-request message ( step 2.b ) and send the message along without other changes. In step 4.b they could then modify the encrypted content to include their own keys fingerprint rather than Bob_FP.

In the case of OpenPGP non-malleability is achieved with Modification Detection Codes (MDC - see section 5.13 and 5.14 of RFC 4880). Implementers need to make sure to verify these and treat invalid or missing MDCs as an error. Using an authenticated encryption scheme prevents these issues and is therefore recommended if possible.

2.1.2. An active attacker cannot break the security of the Setup Contact protocol

Recall that an active attacker can read, modify, and create messages that are sent via a regular channel. The attacker cannot observe or modify the bootstrap code that Alice sends via the second channel. We argue that such an attacker cannot break the security of the Setup Contact protocol, that is, the attacker cannot impersonate Alice to Bob, or Bob to Alice.

Assume, for a worst-case scenario, that the adversary knows the public Autocrypt keys of Alice and Bob. At all steps except step 1, the adversary can drop messages. Whenever the adversary drops a message, the protocol fails to complete. Therefore, we do not consider dropping of messages further.

  1. The adversary cannot impersonate Alice to Bob, that is, it cannot replace Alice’s key with a key Alice-MITM known to the adversary. Alice sends her key to Bob in the encrypted “vc-auth-required” message (step 3). The attacker can replace this message with a new “vc-auth-required” message, again encrypted against Bob’s real key, containing a fake Alice-MITM key. However, Bob will detect this modification step 4a, because the fake Alice-MITM key does not match the fingerprint Alice_FP that Alice sent to Bob in the bootstrap code. (Recall that the bootstrap code is transmitted via the second channel the adversary cannot modify.)

  2. The adversary also cannot impersonate Bob to Alice, that is, it cannot replace Bob’s key with a key Bob-MITM known to the adversary. The cleartext “vc-request” message, sent from Bob to Alice in step 2, contains Bob’s key. To impersonate Bob, the adversary must substitute this key with the fake Bob-MITM key.

    In step 3, Alice cannot distinguish the fake key Bob-MITM inserted by the adversary from Bob’s real key, since she has not seen Bob’s key in the past. Thus, she will follow the protocol and send the reply “vc-auth-required” encrypted with the key provided by the adversary.

    We saw in the previous part that if the adversary modifies Alice’s key in the “vc-auth-required” message, then this is detected by Bob. Therefore, it forwards the “vc-auth-required” message unmodified to Bob.

    Since Alice_FP matches the key in “vc-auth-required”, Bob will in step 4b send the “vc-request-with-auth” message encrypted to Alice’s true key. This message contains Bob’s fingerprint Bob_FP and the challenge AUTH.

    Since the message is encrypted to Alice’s true key, the adversary cannot decrypt the message to read its content. There are now three possibilities for the attacker:

    • The adversary modifies the “vc-request-with-auth” message to replace Bob_FP (which it knows) with the fingerprint of the fake Bob-MITM key. However, the encryption scheme is non-malleable, therefore, the adversary cannot modify the message, without being detected by Alice.
    • The adversary drops Bob’s message and create a new fake message containing the finger print of the fake key Bob-MITM and a guess for the challenge AUTH. The adversary cannot learn the challenge AUTH: it cannot observe the bootstrap code transmitted via the second channel in step 1, and it cannot decrypt the message “vc-request-with-auth”. Therefore, this guess will only be correct with probability \(2^{-64}\). Thus, with overwhelming probability Alice will detect the forgery in step 5, and the protocol terminates without success.
    • The adversary forwards Bob’s original message to Alice. Since this message contains Bob’s key fingerprint Bob_FP, Alice will detect in step 5 that Bob’s “vc-request” from step 3 had the wrong key (Bob-MITM) and the protocol terminates with failure.

2.1.3. Replay attacks and conflicts

Alices device records the time a contact verification was initiated. It also verifies it has not expired and clears the data after completion. This prevents replay attacks. Replay attacks could be used to make Alices device switch back to an old compromised key of Bob.

Limiting an invite to a single use reduces the impact of a QR-code being exposed to an attacker: If the attacker manages to authenticate faster than Bob they can impersonate Bob to Alice. However Bob will see an error message. If the QR-code could be reused the attacker could successfully authenticate. Alice would have two verified contacts and Bob would not see any difference to a successful connection attempt.

Furthermore a compromise of Bob’s device would allow registering other email addresses as verified contacts with Alice.

2.1.4. Business Cards

QR-codes similar to the ones used for verified contact could be used to print on business cards.

Since business cards are usually not treated as confidential they can only serve to authenticate the issuer of the business card (Alice) and not the recipient (Bob).

However as discussed on the messaging@moderncrypto mailing list the verification of a short code at the end of the protocol can extend it to also protect against leakage of the QR-code. This may also be desirable for users who face active surveillance in real life and therefor cannot assume that scanning the QR-code is confidential.

2.1.5. Open Questions

  • (how) can messengers such as Delta.chat make “verified” and “opportunistic” contact requests be indistinguishable from the network layer?
  • (how) could other mail apps such as K-9 Mail / OpenKeychain learn to speak the “setup contact” protocol?

2.2. Verified Group protocol

We introduce a new secure verified group that enables secure communication among the members of the group. Verified groups provide these simple to understand properties:

  1. All messages in a verified group are end-to-end encrypted and secure against active attackers. In particular, neither a passive eavesdropper, nor an attactive network attacker (e.g., capable of man-in-the-middle attacks) can read or modify messages.
  2. There are never any warnings about changed keys (like in Signal) that could be clicked away or cause worry. Rather, if a group member loses her device or her key, then she also looses the ability to read from or write to the verified group. To regain access, this user must join the group again by finding one group member and perform a “secure-join” as described below.

2.2.1. Verifying a contact to prepare joining a group

The goal of the secure-join protocol is to let Alice make Bob a member (i.e., let Bob join) a verified group of which Alice is a member. Alice may have created the group or become a member prior to the addition of Bob.

In order to add Bob to the group Alice has to verify him as a contact if she has not done so yet. We use this message exchange to also ask Bob wether he agrees to becoming part of the group.

The protocol re-uses the first five steps of the setup-contact protocol so that Alice and Bob verify each other’s keys. To ask for Bob’s explicit consent we indicate that the messages are part of the verified group protocol, and include the group’s identifier in the metadata part of the bootstrap code.

More precisely:

  • in step 1 Alice adds the metadata INVITE=<groupname>. Where <groupname> is the name of the group GROUP.
  • in step 2 Bob manually confirms he wants to join GROUP before his device sends the vc-request message. If Bob declines processing aborts.
  • in step 5 Alice looks up the metadata associated with the INVITENUMBER. If Alice sees the INVITE=<groupname> but is not part of the group anymore she aborts the joining process (without sending another message).

If no failure occurred up to this point, Alice and Bob have verified each other’s keys, and Alice knows that Bob wants to join the group GROUP.

The protocol then continues as described in the following section (steps 6 and 7 of the setup-contact are not used).

2.2.2. Joining a verified group (“secure-join”)

In order to add Bob to a group Alice first needs to make sure she has a verified key for Bob. This is the case if Bob already was a verified contact or Alice performed the steps described in the previous section.

Now she needs to inform the group that Bob should be added. Bob needs to confirm everything worked:

  1. Alice broadcasts an encrypted “vg-member-setup” message to all members of GROUP (including Bob), gossiping the Autocrypt keys of all members (including Bob).

  2. Bob receives the encrypted “vg-member-setup” message. Bob’s device verifies:

    • The encryption and Alices signature are intact.
    • Alice may invite Bob to a verified group. That is she is a verified contact of Bob.

    If any of the checks fail processing aborts. Otherwise the device learns all the keys and e-mail addresses of group members. Bob’s device sends a final “vg-member-setup-received” message to Alice’s device. Bob’s device shows “You successfully joined the verified group GROUP”.

  3. Any other group member that receives the encrypted “vg-member-setup” message will process the gossiped key through autocrypt gossip mechanisms. In addition they verify:

    • The encryption and Alices signature are intact.
    • They are themselves a member of GROUP.
    • Alice is a member of GROUP.

    If any of the checks fail processing aborts. Otherwise they will add Bob to their list of group members and mark the gossiped key as verified in the context of this group.

  4. Alice’s device receives the “vg-member-setup-received” reply from Bob and shows a screen “Bob <email-address> securely joined group GROUP

Bob and Alice may now both invite and add more members which in turn can add more members. The described secure-join workflow guarantees that all members of the group have been verified with at least one member. The broadcasting of keys further ensures that all members are fully connected.


Join-Group protocol at step 2 with https://delta.chat.

2.2.3. Strategies for verification reuse

Since we retrieve keys for verified groups from peers we have to choose wether we want to trust our peers to verify the keys correctly.

One of the shortcomings of the web of trust is that it’s mental model is hard to understand and make practical use of. We therefore do not ask the user questions about how much they trust their peers.

Therefore two strategies remain that have different security implications:

  • Restricting verification reuse accross groups Since we share the content of the group with all group members we can also trust them to verify the keys used for the group.

    If they wanted to leak the content they could do so anyway.

    However if we want to reuse keys from one verified group to form a different one the peer who originally verified the key may not be part of the new group.

    If the verifier is “malicious” and colludes with an attacker in a MITM position, they can inject a MITM key as the verified key. Reusing the key in the context of another group would allow MITM attacks on that group.

    This can be prevented by restricting the invitation to verified groups to verified contacts and limiting the scope of keys from member-added messages to the corresponding group.

  • Ignoring infiltrators, focusing on message transport attacks first One may also choose to not consider advanced attacks in which an “infiltrator” peer collaborates with an evil provider to intercept/read messages.

    In this case keys can be reused accross verified groups. Active attacks from an adversary who can only modify messages in the first channel are still impossible.

    A malicious verified contact may inject MITM keys. Say Bob when adding Carol as a new member, sends a prepared MITM key. We refer to this as a Bob in the middle attack to illustrate that a peer is involved in the attack.

    We note, that Bob, will have to sign the message containing the gossip fake keys. In the following section we introduce history verification which will detect such attacks after the fact. Performing a history verification with Alice will inform Carol about the MITM key introduced by Bob. Bob’s signature serves as evidence that Bob gossiped the wrong key for Alice.

    Trusting all peers to verify keys also allows faster recovery from device loss. Say Alice lost her device and Bob verified the new key. Once Bob announced the new key in a verified group including Carol Carol could send the key to further verified groups that Bob is not part of.

2.2.4. Dealing with key loss and compromise

If a user looses their device they can setup a new device and regain access to their inbox. However they may loose their secret key.

They can generate a new key pair. Autocrypt will distribute their new public key in the Autocrypt headers and opportunistic encryption will switch to it automatically.

Verified groups will remain unreadable until the user verifies a contact from that group. Then the contact can update the key used in the group. This happens by sending a “vg-member-setup” message to the group. Since the email address of that user remains the same the old key will be replaced by the new one.

Implementers may decide wether the recipients of such key updates propagate them to other groups they share with the user in question. If they do this will speed up the recovery from device loss. However it also allows Bob-in-the-middle attacks that replace the originally verified keys. So the decision needs to be based on the threat model of the app and the strategy picked for verification reuse

If a key is known or suspected to be compromised more care needs to be taken. Since network attackers can drop messages they can also drop the “vg-member-setup” message that was meant to replace a compromised key. A compromised key combined with a network attack breaks the security of both channels. Recovering from this situation needs careful consideration and goes beyond the scope of our current work.

2.2.5. Notes on the verified group protocol

  • More Asynchronous UI flow: All steps after 2 (the sending of adminstrative messages) could happen asynchronously and in the background. This might be useful because e-mail providers often delay initial messages (“greylisting”) as mitigation against spam. The eventual outcomes (“Could not establish verified connection” or “successful join”) can be delivered in asynchronous notifications towards Alice and Bob. These can include a notification “verified join failed to complete” if messages do not arrive within a fixed time frame. In practise this means that secure joins can be concurrent. A member can show the “Secure Group invite” to a number of people. Each of these peers scans the message and launches the secure-join. As ‘vc-request-with-auth’ messages arrive to Alice, she will send the broadcast message that introduces every new peer to the rest of the group. After some time everybody will become a member of the group.
  • Leaving attackers in the dark about verified groups. It might be feasible to design the step 3 “secure-join-requested” message from Bob (the joiner) to Alice (the inviter) to be indistinguishable from other initial “contact request” messages that Bob sends to Alice to establish contact. This means that the provider would, when trying to substitute an Autocrypt key on a first message between two peers, run the risk of immediate and conclusive detection of malfeasance. The introduction of the verified group protocol would thus contribute to securing the e-mail encryption eco-system, rather than just securing the group at hand.
  • Sending all messages through alternative channels: instead of being relayed through the provider, all messages from step 2 onwards could be transferred via Bluetooth or WLAN. This way, the full invite/join protocol would be completed on a different channel. Besides increasing the security of the joining, an additional advantage is that the provider would not gain knowledge about verifications.
  • Non-messenger e-mail apps: instead of groups, traditional e-mail apps could possibly offer the techniques described here for “secure threads”.

2.2.6. Autocrypt and verified key state

Verified key material – whether from verified contacts or verified groups – provides stronger security guarantees then keys discovered in Autocrypt headers.

At the same time opportunistic usage of keys from autocrypt headers provides faster recovery from device loss.

Therefore the address-to-key mappings obtained using the verification protocols should be stored separately and in addition to the data stored for the normal Autocrypt behaviour.

Verified contacts and groups offer a separate communication channel from the opportunistic one.

We separated the two concepts but they can both be presented to the user as ‘Verified Groups’. In this case the verified contact is a verified group with two members.

This allows the UI to feature a verified group and the ‘normal’ opportunistic encryption with the same contact.

The verified group prevents key injection through Autocrypt headers. In the case of device loss the user can fall back to the non-verified contact to ensure availability of a communication channel even before the next verification has taken place.

2.3. History-verification protocol

The two protocols we have described so far assure the user about the validity of the keys they verify and of the keys of their peers in groups they join. If the protocols detect an active attack (for example because keys are substituted) they immediately alert the user. Since users are involved in a verification process, this is the right time to alert users. By contrast, today’s verification workflows alert the users when a previously key has changed. At that point users typically are not physically next to each other, and are rarely concerned with the key since they want to get a different job done, e.g., of sending or reading a message.

However, our new verification protocols only verify the current keys. Historical interactions between peers may involve keys that have never been verified using these new verification protocols. So how can users determine the integrity of keys of historical messages? This is where the history-verification protocol comes in. This protocol, that again relies on a second channel, enables two peers to verify integrity, authenticity and confidentiality of their shared historic messages. After completion, users gain assurance that not only their current communication is safe but that their past communications have not been compromised.

By verifying all keys in the shared history between peers, the history-verification protocol can detect temporary malfeasant substitutions of keys in messages. Such substitutions are not caught by current key-fingerprint verification workflows, because they only provide assurance about the current keys. They can detect substitutions that happened via gossip, Autocrypt headers and through verification reuse (Bob in the middle attacks).

In the latter case they also point out and provide evidence who introduced the MITM key in a given group. Performing a history verification with that person will in turn show where they got the key from. This way the key can be tracked back to who originally created it.

Like in the setup-contact protocol, we designed our history-verification protocol so that peers only perform only one “show” and “read” of bootstrap information (typically transmitted via showing QR codes and scanning them).

The protocol re-uses the first five steps of the setup-contact protocol so that Alice and Bob verify each other’s keys. We make one small modifications to indicate that the messages are part of the history-verification protocol: In step 1 Alice adds the metadata VERIFY=history.

If no failure occurred after step 5, Alice and Bob have again verified each other’s keys. The protocol then continues as follows (steps 6 and 7 of the setup-contact are not used):

  1. Alice and Bob have each others verified Autocrypt key. They use these keys to encrypt a message to the other party which contains a message/keydata list. For each message that they have exchanged in the past they add the following information:

    • The message id of that message
    • When this message was sent, i.e., the Date field.
    • A list of (email-address, key fingerprints) tuples which they sent or received in that particular message.
  2. Alice and Bob independently perform the following history-verification algorithm:

    1. determine the start-date as the date of the earliest message (by Date) for which both sides have records.
    2. verify the key fingerprints for each message since the start-date for which both sides have records of: if a key differs for any e-mail address, we consider this is strong evidence that there was an active attack. If such evidence is found, an error is shown to both Alice and Bob: “Message at <DATE> from <From> to <recipients> has mangled encryption”.
  3. Alice and Bob are presented with a summary which lists:

    • time frame of verification
    • the number of messages successfully verified
    • the number of messages with mangled encryption
    • the number of dropped messages, i.e. sent by one party, but not received by the other, or vice versa

    If there are no dropped or mangled messages, signal to the user “history verification successfull”.

2.3.1. Device Loss

A typical scenario for a key change is device loss. The owner of the lost device loses access to his private key. We note that when this happens, in most cases the owner also loses access to his messages (because he can no longer decrypt them) and his key history.

Thus, if Bob lost his device, it is likely that Alice will have a much longer history for him then he has himself. Bob can only compare keys for the timespan after the device loss. While this verification is certainly less useful, it would enable Alice and Bob to detect of attacks in that time after the device lossj.

On the other hand, we can also envision users storing their history outside of their devices. The security requirements for such a backup are much lower than for backing up the private key. The backup only needs to be tamper proof, i.e., its integrity must be guaranteed – not its confidentiality. This is achievable even if the private key is lost. Users can verify the integrity of this backup even if they lose their private key. For example, Bob can cryptographically sign the key history using his current key. As long as Bob, and others, have access to Bob’s public key, he can verify that the backup has not been tampered with.

An alternative is to permit that Bob recovers his history from the message/keydata list that he receives from Alice. Then, he could validate such information with other people in subsequent verifications. However, this method is vulnerable to collusion attacks in which Bob’s keys are replaced in all of his peers, including Alice. It may also lead to other error cases that are much harder to investigate. We therefore discourage such an approach.

2.3.2. Keeping records of keys in messages

The history verification described above requires all e-mail apps (MUAs) to record,

  • each e-mail address/key-fingerprint tuple it ever saw in an Autocrypt or an Autocrypt-Gossip header in incoming mails. This means not just the most recent one(s), but the full history.
  • each emailaddr/key association it ever sent out in an Autocrypt or an Autocrypt Gossip header.

It needs to associate these data with the corresponding message-id. State tracking suggested implementation

We suggest MUAs could maintain an outgoing and incoming “message-log” which keeps track of the information in all incoming and outgoing mails, respectively. A message with N recipients would cause N entries in both the sender’s outgoing and each of the recipient’s incoming message logs. Both incoming and outgoing message-logs would contain these attributes:

  • message-id: The message-id of the e-mail
  • date: the parsed Date header as inserted by the sending MUA
  • from-addr: the sender’s routable e-mail address part of the From header.
  • from-fingerprint: the sender’s key fingerprint of the sent Autocrypt key (NULL if no Autocrypt header was sent)
  • recipient-addr: the routable e-mail address of a recipient
  • recipient-fingerprint: the fingerprint of the key we sent or received in a gossip header (NULL if not Autocrypt-Gossip header was sent)

It is also possible to serialize the list of recipient addresses and fingerprints into a single value, which would result in only one entry in the sender’s outgoing and each recipient’s incoming message log. This implementation may be more efficient, but it is also less flexible in terms of how to share information.

2.3.3. Usability question of “sticky” encryption and key loss

Do we want to prevent dropping back to not encrypting or encrypting with a different key if a peer’s autocrypt key state changes? Key change or drop back to cleartext is opportunistically accepted by the Autocrypt Level 1 key processing logic and eases communication in cases of device or key loss. The “setup-contact” also conveniently allows two peers who have no address of each other to establish contact. Ultimately, it depends on the guarantees a mail app wants to provide and how it represents cryptographic properties to the user.

2.4. Verifying keys through onion-queries

Up to this point this document has describe methods to securely add contacts, form groups, and verify history in an offline scenario where users can establish a second channel to carry out the verification. We now discuss how the use of Autocrypt headers can be used to support continuous key verification in an online setting.

A straightforward approach to ensure view consistency in a group is to have all members of the group continuously broadcasting their belief about other group member’s keys. Unless they are fully isolated by the adversary (see Section for an analysis). This enables every member to cross check their beliefs about others and find inconsistencies that reveal an attack.

However, this is problematic from a privacy perspective. When Alice publishes her latest belief about others’ keys she is implicitly revealing what is the last status she observed which in turn allows to infer when was the last time she had contact with them. If such contact happened outside of the group this is revealing information that would not be available had keys not been gossiped.

We now propose an alternative in which group members do not need to broadcast information in order to enable key verification. The solution builds on the observation that the best person to verify Alice’s key is Alice herself. Thus, if Bob wants to verify her key, it suffices to be able to create a secure channel between Bob and Alice so that she can confirm his belief on her key.

However, Bob directly contacting Alice through the group channel reveals immediately that he is interested on verifying her key to the group members, which again raises privacy concerns. Instead, we propose that Bob relies on other members to rely the verifying message to Alice, similarly to a typical anonymous communication network.

The protocol works as follows:

  1. Bob chooses \(n\) members of the group as relying parties to form the channel to Alice. For simplicity let us take \(n=2\) and assume these members are Charlie, key \(k_C\), and David, with key \(k_D\) (both \(k_C\) and \(k_D\) being the current belief of Bob regarding Charlie and David’s keys).

  2. Bob encrypts a message of the form (Bob_ID, Alice_ID , \(k_A\)) with David and Charlie’s keys in an onion encryption:

    \(E_{k_C}\) (David_ID, \(E_{k_D}\) (Alice_ID,(Bob_ID, Alice_ID, \(k_A\) ))), where \(E_{k_*}\) indicates encrypted with key \(k_*\)

    In this message Bob_ID and Alice_ID are the identifiers, e.g., email addresses, that Alice and Bob use to identify each other. The message effectively encodes the question ‘Bob asks: Alice, is your key \(k_A\)?’

  3. Bob sends the message to Charlie, who decrypts the message to find that it has to be relayed to David.

  4. David receives Charlie’s message, decrypts and relays the message to Alice.

  5. Alice receives the message and replies to Bob repeating steps 1 to 4 with other random \(n\) members and inverting the IDs in the message.

From a security perspective, i.e., in terms of resistance to adversaries, this process has the same security properties as the broadcasting. For the adversary to be able to intercept the queries he must MITM all the keys between Bob and others.

From a privacy perspective it improves over broadcasting in the sense that not everyone learns each other status of belief. Also, Charlie knows that Bob is trying a verification, but not of whom. However, David gets to learn that Bob is trying to verify Alice’s key, thus his particular interest on her.

This problem can be solved in two ways:

  1. All members of the group check each other continuously so as to provide plausible deniability regarding real checks.

  2. Bob protects the message using secret sharing so that only Alice can see the content once all shares are received. Instead of sending (Bob_ID, Alice_ID , \(k_A\)) directly, Bob splits it into \(t\) shares. Each of this shares is sent to Alice through a distinct channel. This means that Bob needs toe create \(t\) channels, as in step 1.

    When Alice receives the \(t\) shares she can recover the message and respond to Bob in the same way. In this version of the protocol, David (or any of the last hops before Alice) only learns that someone is verifying Alice, but not whom, i.e., Bob’s privacy is protected.

2.4.1. Open Questions about onion online verification

An open question is how to choose contacts to rely onion verification messages. This choice should not reveal new information about users’ relationships nor the current groups where they belong. Thus, the most convenient is to always choose members of the same group. Other selection strategies need to be analyzed with respect to their privacy properties.

The other point to be discussed is bandwidth. Having everyone publishing their status implies N*(N-1) messages. The proposed solution employs 2*N*n*t messages. For small groups the traffic can be higher. Thus, there is a tradeoff privacy vs. overhead.