Instant Messaging (IM) applications like Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp have become extremely popular in recent years. Unfortunately, such IM services have been targets of continuous governmental surveillance and censorship, as these services are home to public and private communication channels on socially and politically sensitive topics. To protect their clients, popular IM services deploy state-of-the-art encryption mechanisms. In this paper, we show that despite the use of advanced encryption, popular IM applications leak sensitive information about their clients to adversaries who merely monitor their encrypted IM traffic, with no need for leveraging any software vulnerabilities of IM applications. Specifically, we devise traffic analysis attacks that enable an adversary to identify administrators as well as members of target IM channels (e.g., forums) with high accuracies. We believe that our study demonstrates a significant, real-world threat to the users of such services given the increasing attempts by oppressive governments at cracking down controversial IM channels.
We demonstrate the practicality of our traffic analysis attacks through extensive experiments on real-world IM communications. We show that standard countermeasure techniques such as adding cover traffic can degrade the effectiveness of the attacks we introduce in this paper. We hope that our study will encourage IM providers to integrate effective traffic obfuscation countermeasures into their software. In the meantime, we have designed and deployed an open-source, publicly available countermeasure system, called IMProxy, that can be used by IM clients with no need for any support from IM providers. We have demonstrated the effectiveness of IMProxy through experiments.
Secure messaging (SM) protocols allow users to communicate securely over untrusted infrastructure. In contrast to most other secure communication protocols (such as TLS, SSH, or Wireguard), SM sessions may be long-lived (e.g., years) and highly asynchronous. In order to deal with likely state compromises of users during the lifetime of a session, SM protocols do not only protect authenticity and privacy, but they also guarantee forward secrecy (FS) and post-compromise security (PCS). The former ensures that messages sent and received before a state compromise remain secure, while the latter ensures that users can recover from state compromise as a consequence of normal protocol usage.
SM has received considerable attention in the two-party case, where prior work has studied the well-known double-ratchet paradigm in particular and SM as a cryptographic primitive in general. Unfortunately, this paradigm does not scale well to the problem of secure group messaging (SGM). In order to address the lack of satisfactory SGM protocols, the IETF has launched the message-layer security (MLS) working group, which aims to standardize an eponymous SGM protocol. In this work we analyze the TreeKEM protocol, which is at the core of the SGM protocol proposed by the MLS working group.
On a positive note, we show that TreeKEM achieves PCS in isolation (and slightly more). However, we observe that the current version of TreeKEM does not provide an adequate form of FS. More precisely, our work proceeds by formally capturing the exact security of TreeKEM as a so-called continuous group key agreement (CGKA) protocol, which we believe to be a primitive of independent interest. To address the insecurity of TreeKEM, we propose a simple modification to TreeKEM inspired by recent work of Jost et al. (EUROCRYPT ’19) and an idea due to Kohbrok (MLS Mailing List). We then show that the modified version of TreeKEM comes with almost no efficiency degradation but achieves optimal (according to MLS specification) CGKA security, including FS and PCS. Our work also lays out how a CGKA protocol can be used to design a full SGM protocol.
Finally, we propose and motivate an extensive list of potential future research directions for the area.
At the core of Apple’s iMessage is a signcryption scheme that involves symmetric encryption of a message under a key that is derived from the message itself. This motivates us to formalize a primitive we call Encryption under Message-Derived Keys (EMDK). We prove security of the EMDK scheme underlying iMessage. We use this to prove security of the signcryption scheme itself, with respect to definitions of signcryption we give that enhance prior ones to cover issues peculiar to messaging protocols. Our provable-security results are quantitative, and we discuss the practical implications for iMessage.
Content moderation is crucial for stopping abuse and harassment via messaging on online platforms. Existing moderation mechanisms, such as message franking, require platform providers to see user identifiers on encrypted traffic. These mechanisms cannot be used in messaging systems in which users can hide their identities, such as Signal. The key technical challenge preventing moderation is in simultaneously achieving cryptographic accountability while preserving deniability. In this work, we resolve this tension with a new cryptographic primitive: asymmetric message franking schemes (AMFs). We define strong security notions for AMFs, including the first formal treatment of deniability in moderation settings. We then construct, analyze, and implement an AMF scheme that is fast enough for deployment. We detail how to use AMFs to build content moderation for metadata-private messaging.
Signal is a famous secure messaging protocol used by billions of people, by virtue of many secure text messaging applications including Signal itself, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, and Google Allo. At its core it uses the concept of “double ratcheting,” where every message is encrypted and authenticated using a fresh symmetric key; it has many attractive properties, such as forward security, post-compromise security, and “immediate (no-delay) decryption,” which had never been achieved in combination by prior messaging protocols.
While the formal analysis of the Signal protocol, and ratcheting in general, has attracted a lot of recent attention, we argue that none of the existing analyses is fully satisfactory. To address this problem, we give a clean and general definition of secure messaging, which clearly indicates the types of security we expect, including forward security, post-compromise security, and immediate decryption. We are the first to explicitly formalize and model the immediate decryption property, which implies (among other things) that parties seamlessly recover if a given message is permanently lost—a property not achieved by any of the recent “provable alternatives to Signal.” We build a modular “generalized Signal protocol” from the following components: (a) continuous key agreement (CKA), a clean primitive we introduce and which can be easily and generically built from public-key encryption (not just Diffie-Hellman as is done in the current Signal protocol) and roughly models “public-key ratchets;” (b) forward-secure authenticated encryption with associated data (FS-AEAD), which roughly captures “symmetric-key ratchets;” and (c) a two-input hash function that is a pseudorandom function (resp. generator with input) in its first (resp. second) input, which we term PRF-PRNG. As a result, in addition to instantiating our framework in a way resulting in the existing, widely-used Diffie-Hellman based Signal protocol, we can easily get post-quantum security and not rely on random oracles in the analysis.
We further show that our design can be elegantly extended to include other forms of “fine-grained state compromise” recently studied at CRYPTO’18, but without sacrificing the immediate decryption property. However, we argue that the additional security offered by these modifications is unlikely to justify the efficiency hit of using much heavier public-key cryptography in place of symmetric-key cryptography.
Extensive efforts are currently put into securing messaging platforms, where a key challenge is that of protecting against man-in-the-middle attacks when setting up secure end-to-end channels. The vast majority of these efforts, however, have so far focused on securing user-to-user messaging, and recent attacks indicate that the security of group messaging is still quite fragile.
We initiate the study of out-of-band authentication in the group setting, extending the user-to-user setting where messaging platforms (e.g., Telegram and WhatsApp) protect against man-in-the-middle attacks by assuming that users have access to an external channel for authenticating one short value (e.g., two users who recognize each other’s voice can compare a short value). Inspired by the frameworks of Vaudenay (CRYPTO ’05) and Naor et al. (CRYPTO ’06) in the user-to-user setting, we assume that users communicate over a completely-insecure channel, and that a group administrator can out-of-band authenticate one short message to all users. An adversary may read, remove, or delay this message (for all or for some of the users), but cannot undetectably modify it.
Within our framework we establish tight bounds on the tradeoff between the adversary’s success probability and the length of the out-of-band authenticated message (which is a crucial bottleneck given that the out-of-band channel is of low bandwidth). We consider both computationally-secure and statistically-secure protocols, and for each flavor of security we construct an authentication protocol and prove a lower bound showing that our protocol achieves essentially the best possible tradeoff.
In particular, considering groups that consist of an administrator and k
additional users, for statistically-secure protocols we show that at least (k+1)⋅(log(1/ϵ)−Θ(1)) bits must be out-of-band authenticated, whereas for computationally-secure ones log(1/ϵ)+logk bits suffice, where ϵ is the adversary’s success probability. Moreover, instantiating our computationally-secure protocol in the random-oracle model yields an efficient and practically-relevant protocol (which, alternatively, can also be based on any one-way function in the standard model).
We initiate the study of message franking, recently introduced in Facebook’s end-to-end encrypted message system. It targets verifiable reporting of abusive messages to Facebook without compromising security guarantees. We capture the goals of message franking via a new cryptographic primitive: compactly committing authenticated encryption with associated data (AEAD). This is an AEAD scheme for which a small part of the ciphertext can be used as a cryptographic commitment to the message contents. Decryption provides, in addition to the message, a value that can be used to open the commitment. Security for franking mandates more than that required of traditional notions associated with commitment. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that AEAD schemes are in general not committing (compactly or otherwise), we prove that many in-use AEAD schemes can be used for message franking by using secret keys as openings. An implication of our results is the first proofs that several in-use symmetric encryption schemes are committing in the traditional sense. We also propose and analyze schemes that retain security even after openings are revealed to an adversary. One is a generalization of the scheme implicitly underlying Facebook’s message franking protocol, and another is a new construction that offers improved performance.
We aim to understand, formalize and provably achieve the goals underlying the core key-ratcheting technique of Borisov, Goldberg and Brewer, extensions of which are now used in secure messaging systems. We give syntax and security definitions for ratcheted encryption and key-exchange. We give a proven-secure protocol for ratcheted key exchange. We then show how to generically obtain ratcheted encryption from ratcheted key-exchange and standard encryption.
In the past few years secure messaging has become mainstream, with over a billion active users of end-to-end encryption protocols such as Signal. The Signal Protocol provides a strong property called post-compromise security to its users. However, it turns out that many of its implementations provide, without notification, a weaker property for group messaging: an adversary who compromises a single group member can read and inject messages indefinitely. We show for the first time that post-compromise security can be achieved in realistic, asynchronous group messaging systems. We present a design called Asynchronous Ratcheting Trees (ART), which uses tree-based Diffie-Hellman key exchange to allow a group of users to derive a shared symmetric key even if no two are ever online at the same time. ART scales to groups containing thousands of members, while still providing provable security guarantees. It has seen significant interest from industry, and forms the basis for two draft IETF RFCs and a chartered working group. Our results show that strong security guarantees for group messaging are practically achievable in a modern setting.
Messaging systems are used to spread misinformation and other malicious content, often with dire consequences. End-to-end encryption improves privacy but hinders content-based moderation and, in particular, obfuscates the original source of malicious content. We introduce the idea of message traceback, a new cryptographic approach that enables platforms to simultaneously provide end-to-end encryption while also being able to track down the source of malicious content reported by users. We formalize functionality and security goals for message traceback, and detail two constructions that allow revealing a chain of forwarded messages (path traceback) or the entire forwarding tree (tree traceback). We implement and evaluate prototypes of our traceback schemes to highlight their practicality, and provide a discussion of deployment considerations.
End-to-end encrypted messaging (E2E) is only secure if participants have a way to retrieve the correct public key for the desired recipient. However, to make these systems usable, users must be able to replace their keys (e.g. when they lose or reset their devices, or reinstall their app), and we cannot assume any cryptographic means of authenticating the new keys. In the current E2E systems, the service provider manages the directory of public keys of its registered users; this allows a compromised or coerced service provider to introduce their own keys and execute a man in the middle attack.
Building on the approach of CONIKS (Melara et al, USENIX Security `15), we formalize the notion of a Privacy-Preserving Verifiable Key Directory (VKD): a system which allows users to monitor the keys that the service is distributing on their behalf. We then propose a new VKD scheme which we call SEEMless, which improves on prior work in terms of privacy and scalability. In particular, our new approach allows key changes to take effect almost immediately; we show experimentally that our scheme easily supports delays less than a minute, in contrast to previous work which proposes a delay of one hour.