Fast Team Loader (FTL)

Big teams can be slow to load, mainly in terms of bandwidth, but also in terms of client-side processing. For instance, take the team Keybasefriends. A full team chain load on this team, involves 3M of signature data, and the full signature chains for the admins. For example, chris's sigchain is over 2.5M compressed. So the experience of loading into chat on a fresh mobile install can be painful. (On a warm cache, much of the above can elided).

Luckily, there is a major shortcut that we can take here. To render the chat window, or the chat "snippet" in the UI, the Keybase crypto engine only needs to know the encryption keys for the chat, and any creations or changes to subteam names. Much of the other information advertised in the team signature chain is irrelevant. In Fast Teaming Loading (FTL), clients request from the server only those team sigchain links that advertise changes in the team's key, or changes to subteams. They check that a proper chain is formed, that the tail of the chain is advertised correctly in the global Merkle Tree, and that this abbreviated view of the chain is consistent with full loads of the team (via the audit mechanism described below). Full loads of the team still happen as usual when the a user lists or edits team memberships, or when his/her client rotates team keys. Once a client downloads the abbreviated team chain, it downloads the encrypted secret halves of those keys, decrypts the secret keys, and checks the secret keys match the public keys in the download step. It also checks any creation or changes to subteam names, and ensures that the final result matches what the chat servers claim.

What's missing in the above process is any checking of signatures made by team admins. Thus, when assisting a client in a fast team load (FTL), the server can make a wholesale substitution of a team's sigchain. It can advertise a totally new team, signed by different admins, or bogus versions of the correct admins, since it knows that clients won't bother to check these signatures. But the server can't perform this swap willy-nilly; it must commit to it for all time, or fork the Merkle Tree and maintain the fork for all time.

Clients can catch the server in the act if they ever do a slow load of the same team in the future, or if teammates discover out-of-band that they are missing updates, or if users check their current client's view of the Merkle tree against what appears in the Bitcoin blockchain.

The "Odd-Even" Attack and Team Audits

Thinking about speeding up first entry into a team chat via FTL did bring up the possibility of an attack that was always possible in loading teams, even the slow way. Imagine two users, Alice and Bob, who want to view the team acme. The server is trying to give them diverging versions A and B of the team without commiting to a global fork. It might publish the following sigchain tail to the Merkle tree:

  • GlobalMerkleSequenceNumber=1000: acme=[TeamSequenceNumber=10, TeamSigchainTailHash=aa001122]
  • GlobalMerkleSequenceNumber=1001: acme=[TeamSequenceNumber=10, TeamSigchainTailHash=bb445566]
  • GlobalMerkleSequenceNumber=1002: acme=[TeamSequenceNumber=10, TeamSigchainTailHash=aa001122]
  • GlobalMerkleSequenceNumber=1003: acme=[TeamSequenceNumber=10, TeamSigchainTailHash=bb445566]

That is, on even global Merkle sequence numbers, for Alice's benefit, it would publish version A of acme, and on odd sequence numbers, for Bob's benefit, it would publish version B. It would then be certain to only show Alice even Merkle roots, and Bob odd ones. Of course, many variations of this attack exist. The gist is that Alice and Bob see different versions of the same team, without a global fork of the tree, by "equivocation" at this one leaf.

We note off the bat that a global auditor could detect this attack. Though the auditor could not see acme's chain, it could tell something was amiss that the sequence number of acme didn't budge, but the chain tail hash did. However, we would like to give Alice and Bob a way to detect such an attack online, without having to consult an external auditor.

In versions 2.7.0 and above, Keybase runs a "team audit" whenever it loads a team, either via the fast path or the slow path. Recall that the first step of loading a team is to request the team's chain team from the server, which will yield a triple:

  • (GlobalMerkleSequenceNumber, TeamSequenceNumber, TeamSigchainTailHash)

Then the client requests the rest of the team's chain, whether the full chain in the case of a slow load, or an abbreviated chain in the case of a fast load.

In a final "audit" pass, the client picks a random set of historical Merkle roots and requests a path from the root down the given team at that sequence number. It then:

  • ensures that the most recent global Merkle root points back to this historical roots (via hash-chain pointers);
  • verifies that the TeamSequenceNumbers are monotonically increasing;
  • and checks that the TeamSigchainTailHashes match those downloaded from the server when the fast or slow load happened.

Because the client controls the random number sequence that will be queried, and Alice and Bob both do this audit, it would be extremely unlikely that the evil server could guess ahead of time how to configure the two views of the chain. As Alice and Bob probe more snapshots, it becomes exponentially harder for the server to win the game.

Each probe is about 25k big, since it includes all of the intermediate hashes between the root and the tail, and the pointer from the current Merkle root back to the historical one. On mobile devices, we tune the number of probes way down to save precious bandwidth. On desktop, we tune the parameters up, assuming bandwidth is more plentiful. Audits continue on an ongoing basis, to ensure that previous updates to the team chain remain unequivocal.