October 23, 2017

Why Making Johnny's Key Management Transparent is So Challenging

In light of the ongoing debate about the importance of using end-to-end encryption to protect our data and communications, several tech companies have announced plans to increase the encryption in their services. However, this isn’t a new pledge: since 2014, Google and Yahoo have been working on a browser plugin to facilitate sending encrypted emails using their services. Yet in recent weeks, some have criticized that only alpha releases of these tools exist, and have started asking why they’re still a work in progress.

One of the main challenges to building usable end-to-end encrypted communication tools is key management. Services such as Apple’s iMessage have made encrypted communication available to the masses with an excellent user experience because Apple manages a directory of public keys in a centralized server on behalf of their users. But this also means users have to trust that Apple’s key server won’t be compromised or compelled by hackers or nation-state actors to insert spurious keys to intercept and manipulate users’ encrypted messages. The alternative, and more secure, approach is to have the service provider delegate key management to the users so they aren’t vulnerable to a compromised centralized key server. This is how Google’s End-To-End works right now. But decentralized key management means users must “manually” verify each other’s keys to be sure that the keys they see for one another are valid, a process that several studies have shown to be cumbersome and error-prone for the vast majority of users. So users must make the choice between strong security and great usability.

In August 2015, we published our design for CONIKS, a key management system that addresses these usability and security issues. CONIKS makes the key management process transparent and publicly auditable. To evaluate the viability of CONIKS as a key management solution for existing secure communication services, we held design discussions with experts at Google, Yahoo, Apple and Open Whisper Systems, primarily over the course of 11 months (Nov ‘14 – Oct ‘15). From our conversations, we learned about the open technical challenges of deploying CONIKS in a real-world setting, and gained a better understanding for why implementing a transparent key management system isn’t a straightforward task.
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