Programming .NET Security : Symmetric Encryption Explained (part 2) - Cipher Modes

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2. Cipher Modes

Most symmetric encryption algorithms operate in different cipher modes, which specify variations in the way that data is prepared before being processed by the cipher function. The following sections explain the most commonly used modes, but you should bear in mind that there are a large number of variations and not all algorithms can support all cipher modes.

2.1. Electronic Codebook mode

The Electronic Codebook (ECB) mode is the simplest cipher mode and builds ciphertext by concatenating the output of the cipher function, as shown in Figure 4. We can summarize the process as follows:

  1. Break the plaintext into blocks that are the same size as the input of the cipher function.

  2. Use the secret key to encrypt each plaintext data block in turn with the cipher function.

  3. Append the output of the cipher function to the ciphertext.

Figure 4. The ECB mode is the simplest way to encrypt data with a block cipher function

Although this seems like the obvious way to encrypt data, the deterministic nature of the cipher function exposes the ciphertext to a special kind of attack whenever there is repetition in the confidential message.

The cipher function is consistent, and using a secret key to encrypt two identical blocks of data results in identical blocks of ciphertext. If there are any repeated blocks of data in the plaintext, you will end up with repeated blocks of data in the ciphertext, which presents a weakness that Eve can exploit.

There is a natural structure to many types of messages; for example, Alice's letters often begin with "Dear Bob" and emails will often start with "From," "To," or "Received." Imagine that Alice sends a company memo to Bob, and that Eve knows (or can guess at) the structure of such messages.

Figure 5 shows a simplified representation of the effect of building the ciphertext from the output of the cipher function directly—simplified because we have assumed that each word is encrypted as a plaintext block in a case-insensitive manner. Real encryption algorithms work on binary data, but our example is useful for understanding the issue at hand. Eve knows that all of Alice's memos begin with "From," and therefore knows that the first block of ciphertext represents that word. Eve knows that every time she finds that particular ciphertext block in the encrypted data she has located another instance of the word "From." By applying her knowledge of the message structure, Eve deduces several words in the confidential message, including the words "To," "Bob," "Subject," and "Alice."

Figure 5. Eve uses plaintext repetition to build a codebook of known ciphertext blocks

Eve finds repeated ciphertext blocks for which she can't deduce the meaning, because the word that the block represents is not included in the standard structure of Alice's memo; AAA and BBBB indicate these blocks. Regardless, Eve keeps a record of these blocks, because she may intercept another message that reveals their meaning later and shed more light on this message—a process of building a codebook that will help her recognize the meaning of known ciphertext blocks as she intercepts them. Eve's "codebook" is useful only while Alice and Bob use the same secret key. If they agree on a new key, the ciphertext blocks for known words will be different, and Eve will have to start from scratch.

The ECB mode is the simplest way to create ciphertext, although the risks associated with encrypting duplicate plaintext blocks mean that you should use it with caution. The following sections describe alternate cipher modes that address the problem of block repetition, and we recommend that you use these instead of ECB.

2.2. Cipher block chaining

The most common way to overcome the block repetition weakness of ECB is to add "feedback" into the cipher function. Adding feedback produces a ciphertext in which the result of encrypting a data block affects the results of encrypting all subsequent blocks. Figure 6 illustrates the most widely used way of doing this, called Cipher Block Chaining (CBC), which works as follows:

  1. Break the plaintext into blocks that are the same size as the input for the cipher function.

  2. Process the first message block:

    1. XOR the message block with the "seed" data to create a combined data block.

    2. Encrypt the result to produce the first block of ciphertext.

  3. Process remaining message blocks in turn:

    1. XOR the plaintext block with most recently created ciphertext block to create a combined data block.

    2. Encrypt the combined data block and append the result to the ciphertext.

Figure 6. CBC uses the result of previous encryptions to transform plain text blocks

For example, to encrypt the 10th plaintext block you XOR it with the 9th ciphertext block and encrypt the result, producing the 10th ciphertext block, which you XOR with the 11th plaintext block, and so on.

The seed data for symmetric encryption is called the initialization vector (IV) and is used to ensure that the first block of ciphertext is not open to ECB-style attacks. The IV is a block of random data that is the same size as the cipher function input block.

Using CBC means that Bob has to use the same IV to decrypt the data as Alice used to encrypt the message; fortunately, the value of the IV is not a secret, and there is no danger in allowing it to fall into Eve's hands. Alice should select a new IV for each message that she encrypts, and she will normally send the IV to the recipient along with the encrypted data.

2.3. Cipher feedback mode

Processing plaintext data block by block is not suitable for all projects, especially those where the data to encrypt becomes available over time (for example, received via a network stream). In such cases, the confidential data has to be held in memory until a complete block is received and encrypted, which can present a security risk.

Cipher Feedback (CFB) mode is a technique for using a block cipher function to encrypt plaintext in fragments smaller than the function block size, allowing data to be encrypted as it arrives. Like CBC, CFB uses an IV, but in this mode, it represents the initial value for a queue, which is a data block the same size as the cipher function input. If you are using a cipher that operates on 64-bit data blocks but the data becomes available in 8-bit chunks, then the CFB protocol is as follows:

  1. Create a 64-bit queue, and fill it with a 64-bit IV.

  2. As each 8-bit chunk of plaintext becomes available:

    1. Encrypt the queue.

    2. XOR the leftmost eight bits of the encrypted queue with the eight bits of plaintext to create the cipher data chunk.

    3. Append the cipher data chunk to the ciphertext output.

    4. Shift the queue eight bits to the left and discard the leftmost eight bits.

    5. Set the rightmost eight bits of the queue to be the eight bits of ciphertext.

This seems a lot more complicated than it actually is. Start with a 64-bit queue that contains the IV, and as you progress, the queue gradually fills up with 8-bit chunks of ciphertext. Figure 7 illustrates the way in which CFB works.

Figure 7. CFB mode uses a queue to process small chunks of data

CFB encrypts data one bit at a time if required, although that would use a lot of CPU (because the cipher function encrypts a complete block of data for each message bit). In the queue, the gradual shifting of the data protects against ECB attacks.

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