High Level Overview

When Alice sends a message to Bob, she uses the same keys that she would use to save a file in /keybase/private/alice,bob. (See the KBFS crypto doc.) That makes a lot of nice things work right off the bat:

  • Alice and Bob share a symmetric encryption key, which they pass through the server by encrypting it to each of their devices' public encryption keys.
  • If either of them removes a device, their other devices will create and share a new encryption key. That guarantees the removed device can't read new messages, without relying on the server to enforce it.
  • If either of them adds a new device, that device will get a copy of all the keys it needs to read old messages.
  • Alice can send a message to Bob even if he hasn't joined Keybase yet. If she knows Bob is @bobbymcferrin on Twitter, she can message him now, and later one of her devices will check @bobbymcferrin's proof and share keys with him automatically.

Even though the server can't forge new messages, there are tricks it might try to play. For performance reasons, it's the server's responsibility to assign a sequential ID to each message. An evil server could try to reorder some messages, for example, or leave some of them out. To limit tricks like that, every time Alice sends a message, she includes some references to other messages she's seen before. Bob's device will check that list, to make sure it's consistent with what he's seeing. That limits the mischief an evil server can do, while still letting Alice send messages quickly on a bad network.

That shared context prevents the server from dropping Alice's messages without her permission, but it's still important that Alice can choose to delete them when she wants to. To make that work without losing the context, every message comes in two parts, a header and a body. The header holds the previous message references and never gets deleted. The body holds the text of a message, and when Alice sends a special "delete" message, the server will delete it. That way Bob can check that the deletion is allowed. Editing messages works in a similar way; Alice sends a special "edit" message that Bob can verify.

Signing and encrypting attachments is almost the same as for regular messages, except that they could be very large. If Alice uploads a video, Bob might want to see part of it without downloading the whole thing. To make that work, Alice splits up her attachments into chunks and signs and encrypts them individually, so that Bob can verify just the chunks that he needs. This is all done carefully (more details below) to make sure no one can move the chunks around after the fact.

Another issue that comes up with large files is that it's helpful to host them on third-party CDNs. One worry about CDNs though, even with encrypted files, is that we might not be able to delete files reliably when we want to. To help with that, Alice encrypts attachments with a new set of one-time-use keys, and she includes those keys in the attachment message body. That way deleting the attachment message body has the same effect as deleting the large file.

Nitty Gritty Details

Algorithms

There are two versions of our message boxing scheme. MessageBoxedV2 is used now. MessageBoxedV1 is not written by clients anymore, but messages still exist and clients need to understand it.

Message encryption is done with NaCl's crypto_secretbox (XSalsa20, Poly1305). In MessageBoxedV1 header signing is done with NaCl's crypto_sign (Ed25519, SHA512) and header encryption is done with crypto_secretbox. In MessageBoxedV2 the header uses signencryption which is described below. The sender (or deleter or editor) of a message performs the following steps:

  • Encrypt the message body with a random 24-byte nonce. We don't need sequential nonces to enforce ordering, because we have previous message references below, so a random nonce is the simplest way to prevent reuse. In our case the body is one of several different types of structures (text, attachment, edit, delete, etc.) serialized with MessagePack.
  • MessageBoxedV1: SHA-256 hash the ciphertext of the message body.
  • MessageBoxedV2: SHA-256 hash the encrypted message body's version || nonce || ciphertext.
  • Add that hash to the message header, along with other metadata like the list of previous message references. This structure also gets serialized with MessagePack.
  • MessageBoxedV1: Sign the serialized header bytes. Encrypt the signed header with another random nonce.
  • MessageBoxedV2: Signencrypt the serialized header bytes with another random nonce.
  • Send the header plaintext, the header ciphertext, the body ciphertext, and both nonces to the server.

The fields in the header aren't secret from the server, and it actually needs to know several of them, like the message type. The reason for sign-then-encrypting/signencrypting the header is instead to keep the signature itself private. Even though the server knows who's talking to whom, because it's delivering all the messages, it's better that it can't prove what it knows.

The purpose of the signing step is to prevent participants in the chat from impersonating one another. Authenticated encryption is already enough to prevent people outside the chat from forging messages, but because all the participants share the encryption key, it wouldn't not enough to distinguish one participant from another without server trust.

Attachments use signencryption as well.

Signencryption

Signencryption is a construction for encrypting and signing a message, using a symmetric encryption key and a signing keypair, in a way that keeps the signature hidden and supports safe streaming decryption.

Encryption is done in constant size chunks, with a single short or empty chunk to mark the end and detect truncation. Each chunk's nonce is 16 random bytes (shared by all chunks) plus an 8-byte sequential counter (unique to each chunk). This prevents nonce reuse, chunk reordering, and chunk swapping between packets. Encryption is layered on top of signing to hide the signature, and the signature includes the encryption key as associated data to prevent the encryption layer from being swapped out.

This scheme is documented in detail in the source code.

Key Handling

The details in this section are shared with KBFS and the rest of the Keybase app.

All Keybase devices publish a crypto_box public key and a crypto_sign public key when they're first provisioned. Those keys live in the user's signature chain, where they're connected to other other devices' keys by mutual signatures. Each of a user's identity proofs is also signed by one of these device keys and recorded in the signature chain. (PGP keys can participate in the signature chain too, but not in chat or KBFS.)

A chat symmetric encryption key is 32 random bytes. It's shared by everyone in the chat, and it's the same key that they use to encrypt files in the private KBFS folder that those same people share. When a new device needs this shared key, another device that has it will encrypt it with the new device's public crypto_box key and then upload it to the Keybase server. Chat signing keys are the device-specific crypto_sign keys described above.

Secret keys are stored on disk, in a file encrypted with crypto_secretbox, with a key derived from the user's Keybase password. While the user is logged in to Keybase, that key is stored on disk in plain text (see tradeoffs below), or in the system keyring on macOS. When the user logs out of Keybase, that key is deleted, and their secret keys are unreadable until the next login.

Cached chat messages on disk are encrypted with crypto_secretbox, with a symmetric key that's derived from the device's crypto_box secret key. This is done so that when the secret key is inaccessible, particularly when the user is logged out of Keybase, cached messages are also inaccessible.

Header Layout

The chat header fields are specified in our chat.1.local protocol:

record HeaderPlaintextV1 {
    ConversationIDTriple conv;
    string tlfName;
    boolean tlfPublic;
    MessageType messageType;
    array<MessagePreviousPointer> prev;
    gregor1.UID sender;
    gregor1.DeviceID senderDevice;
    Hash bodyHash;
    union { null, OutboxInfo } outboxInfo;
    union { null, OutboxID } outboxID;
    union {null, SignatureInfo} headerSignature;
    union { null, MerkleRoot } merkleRoot;
}

The fields are:

  • ConverationIDTriple conv — A (TLFId, TopicType, TopicID) triple that uniquely identifies this chat. The first field is a random 16-byte ID that uniquely identifies the TLF ("top level folder", a KBFS share). Note that the mapping from TLF name to ID isn't totally fixed, since the TLF might predate when one of the members joined (via "sharing before signup"). The TopicType specifies what "type" of chat this is, since some future chats might be automated communication channels rather than just human-to-human chats. The TopicID is a 16-byte random identifier that uniquely identifies this "topic", so that eventually multiple topics (with mutable names) can exist for each TLF.

  • string tlfName — is the human readable name for this chat, like max,chris or max,BarackObama@twitter. It is technically redundant since it conveys the same information as the TLFId in the previous field. However, including it in the header allows clients to cryptographically associate the two and prevent the server from maliciously reassociating them in the future.

  • boolean tlfPublic — distinguishes between the public and private side of the tlfName above.

  • MessageType messageType — So far, the available types are given here. Some are chat data, but some are metadata (e.g., "change the name of this chat"), and edits to previously sent messages.

  • array<MessagePreviousPointer> prev — Pointers to the previously received chat messages to protect against the server reordering, deleting or replaying previous chat messages. The prev pointer to a previous message m consists of the hash of the encryption of m, and the sequential ID that the server assigned to m. The server is tasked with maintaining a total order among messages in a chat, and clients use previous pointers to hold the server to previously advertised orderings.

  • gregor1.UID sender and gregor1.DeviceID senderDevice — sender UID and device ID.

  • Hash bodyHash — In MessageBoxedV1 a SHA-256 hash of the encrypted body ciphertext (.e). In MessageBoxedV2 a SHA-256 hash of the encrypted body (.v || .n || .e).

  • outboxInfo and outboxID — Extra sender bookkeeping data, not used for security.

  • union {null, SignatureInfo} headerSignature — In MessageBoxedV1 a signature computed over the whole header (including the body hash above). In MessageBoxedV2 this field is null, instead the whole header is signencrypted.

  • union {null, MerkleRoot } merkleRoot A recent merkle root observed by the sender. Not present in MessageBoxedV1.

Limitations and Tradeoffs

Forward Secrecy

Tradeoff: Messages on the server don't have forward secrecy. That is, the keys to read them still exist on your devices, and they never get deleted. That means that someone who steals your device might be able to read your old messages.

Reason: This is necessary for users to read their message history on new devices. Forward secrecy also gets into a gray area when you allow multiple devices on an account. (If you haven't turned on your other phone in 6 months, and you keep sending messages to it, the ephemeral keys on that phone aren't very ephemeral anymore.) Finally, deleting keys doesn't help you much if you keep decrypted message history on the same device. Note that we do generate new encryption keys when you remove a device, so a removed device can't decrypt messages that were sent after it got removed.

Repudiability

Tradeoff: Chat messages don't have repudiability. That is, if Alice sends a message to Bob, it's possible for Bob to prove to other people that Alice sent it.

Reason: This is a side effect of using signing keys to authenticate messages. Repudiable authentication works well in a chat between two people, and it's even cheaper than signing. But it doesn't scale well to group chats with tons of people, because the sender needs to authenticate each message separately for every other person in the group. It also makes it difficult to add new people to an existing group (which we might support in the future), because old messages can't be reauthenticated until all the senders come online.

History Integrity

Tradeoff: The server is responsible for assigning sequential IDs to new messages, and it's possible for the server to change history in specific ways, like delaying messages or reordering senders who haven't seen each other's messages yet.

Reason: Good performance in a messenger app requires letting different people send messages at the same time, without forcing them to synchronize or to have perfectly up-to-date message history. That means that the server will always have a lot of leeway in deciding what actually happened. The previous message references guarantee that the server can't put a message before one it was replying to, or delete messages after other people have seen them.

Metadata

Tradeoff: Keybase is a centralized service, and the server receives a lot of metadata. It knows who's talking to whom and how much data they're sending back and forth. It also knows the type of each message, like "text", "attachment", or "deletion".

Reason: Decentralized services make it difficult to add features over time, unless the developers can break backwards compatibility, which defeats most of the purpose of decentralizing. Moxie Marlinspike wrote an article about many of these issues. Decentralized services can also be easier to spy on, depending on who's doing the spying. It's much easier to run a malicious Tor exit node than to break into Facebook's servers, for example.

Keys on Disk

Tradeoff: Keybase sometimes keeps secret keys accessible on disk, instead of encrypting them with your password all the time.

Reason: Modern operating systems make full-disk encryption convenient, so the use case for application-specific encrypted storage is much more limited than it used to be. It doesn't help much unless an attacker can read arbitrary files from your disk but can't run arbitrary code. That can happen, but it's a very specific scenario, and it leaks your decrypted files even if it doesn't leak your keys. By comparison, throwing extra password prompts at the user is a major downside for everyone all the time, especially non-experts who don't know how to pick good passwords or manage them.

Keybase's centralized model also makes it easier to recover from leaked signing keys, compared to PGP. Everyone checks for revocations in your signature chain automatically. In the worst-case scenario where you lose control of your account entirely, and you can't publish revocations at all, you can still take down all the identity proofs associated with it.