The case for symmetric encryption

In this day and age, everything dealing with encryption seems to be of the more complex asymmetric kind: PGP, SSL, TLS, BlockChain, you name it. So, is the old-fashioned symmetric encryption, where the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt, obsolete and done with? “By no means!” say a number of users. In this article, I begin quoting an email I got recently, adding some of my own musings, and making an announcement after that.

This is what a faithful user sent me. He did not want his name to be published but was okay with my quoting what he said:

The case for symmetric encryption:

There are circumstances when symmetrical encryption, that is where both sender and recipient use the same secret key to encrypt and decrypt messages, is the most practical and safest method for encrypting email.

Whenever a message sender, who is known by cryptographic custom as Alice, wishes to write an end-to-end encrypted email to a recipient, customarily known as Bob, one of two cryptographic systems can be used.

The simpler is symmetric encryption in which Alice and Bob have a single secret key, which is used by both of them to encrypt and decrypt messages. The obvious shortcoming of symmetrical encryption is that before Alice and Bob can email, they need to meet up – or have some other safe channel – through which to communicate the secret key. Asymmetrical encryption solves that problem. Both Alice and Bob have two mathematically related keys, one private one public. For Alice to send Bob an encrypted message she ascertains his public key and encrypts her message using it. The message can only be decrypted using Bob’s private key, which he keeps secret and safe.

It would seem, then, that asymmetrical encryption, involving no prior secret exchange of keys, enjoys a clear advantage, and for many purposes it does. But there are a number of things that can go wrong with asymmetrical encryption, which can’t happen with symmetrical encryption – or at least when the secret symmetric key is agreed face-to-face. Let us look at these:

1. Alice is sending Bob a message encrypted with Bob’s public key. However she needs to authenticate it; i.e. prove the message is from her. Precisely because Bob’s public key is public anybody could encrypt a message using it and then impersonate Alice. To prevent that, Alice “signs” the message using her own private key. To read the message Bob uses his private key; and to verify the authenticity of the message he needs Alice’s public key. The difficulty is solved, but only at the expense of complexity. With symmetric encryption signing and verification are not necessary because the ability to encrypt and decrypt using the single secret key is proof of authenticity.

2. Before Alice can email Bob she needs to find Bob’s public key, which may be on his website or in some other public place. But how can Alice be sure that the website or key server has not been tampered with, and that she is not encrypting the message with a key that can be read by somebody else? Equally, when Bob needs to find Alice’s public key from a public place to verify the message, how can he know it is genuine? If Alice and Bob had agreed a symmetric key face-to-face the issue of tampering and impersonation would not arise.

3. It could happen that Alice or Bob believe that their private key is no longer secret and safe. If someone else had acquired it all his or her incoming mail could be read, but revoking the key from a public place is not easy. To be successful, everyone who has or might use it needs to know of the revocation and of the replacement. With symmetric encryption, compromising one key only affects the two parties involved; they can then easily set up a new key – and maintain different levels of security for each key used with different people. Alice’s communication with Bob can be kept more securely than her communication with Bill, for instance.

Asymmetric encryption therefore brings with it a number of difficulties not suffered by symmetric encryption. The sole disadvantage of symmetric encryption is that Alice 2 and Bob need to agree a secret key face-to-face or through some other safe channel. But in many cases that it is no difficulty at all. It may well be that Alice and Bob meet in person as well as send emails. Alice and Bob could be lovers, or they could be members of a political action group which is under surveillance by security agencies. There is no safer form of email encryption than for Alice and Bob to meet, agree a twenty-character long password consisting of random numbers and letters, and for both of them to keep it secret and safe and to use it to encrypt and decrypt their text emails.

This is what he said, and this is what I’d like to add:

I have been focused on asymmetric encryption for a while because symmetric encryption has the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of key distribution. Namely, that there is no good secure way to get a new key to those who should use it other than meeting face to face. But if meeting is possible, then it is hard to beat symmetric encryption, especially if the agreed-on key is a random string that is deleted from its storage location when a new key replaces it. In this case, old encrypted messages become undecryptable, and they possess the very valuable property of forward secrecy.

PassLok does retain the ability to use symmetric encryption by providing a shared Key, instead of a Lock, whenever the program does an encryption. If the shared Key is not stored in the directory (it can be stored, just like a Lock), then it takes a click of the Edit button to reveal the box where that shared Key should be placed, and another click to get back to the Main screen. But the author of the above piece, and I presume many others, still consider this too confusing when faced with so many other options and buttons to be pressed.

Therefore, I have updated URSA so it does only symmetric encryption, bringing it to version 4.0. You can find it at https://passlok.com/ursa.  Its interface is similar to that of PassLok, replacing the directory box with a shared Key input box. Help is similar to that in PassLok and SeeOnce, but called from a button rather than occupying its own tab. There are no Options to choose. Because it is based on the NaCl engine like PassLok 2.2 (unlike URSA 3.3, which is based on the SJCL engine), URSA 4.0 is not compatible with version 3.3, but it is compatible with PassLok 2.2 so that messages locked with URSA 4.0 can be unlocked in PassLok, and (short mode) messages locked with PassLok can be unlocked in URSA 4.0.

My hope is that URSA can serve as an introduction to practical encryption for many people. After they feel comfortable with shared Keys and the basics of encryption and decryption (“locking” and “unlocking” in URSA and PassLok), then they can move to the fuller experience that is PassLok. If they still feel overwhelmed, they can try SeeOnce for a while, which will introduce them to asymmetric encryption in a relatively simple way, and then try PassLok.

So, check out the new URSA at https://passlok.com/ursa. Perhaps this is all you’ll ever need for your encryption needs.

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