The “Key” to Reality

If we wanted to reduce the definition of authentication to its most Zen-like simplicity, we could say authentication is “keeping things real.” To keep something real you need to have some sort of confirmation of its identity, as confirmation is the key (so to speak).

The equation could be as follows:

Identification + Confirmation = Authentication

Confirming or validating the identity of a document, item, data, etc. is what keeping things real is all about. Some of the “things” that can be authenticated with cryptographic methods are mobile, medical, and consumer accessories; embedded firmware; industrial network nodes; and sensors, among others. Soon IoT and vehicle-to-vehicle communication will join in.

Authentication is far more important than many people realize, especially in our growing hyper-connected world that now links billions of people (and things). In cyber-land, authentication is accomplished by deploying cryptographic keys and algorithms. Keys are fundamental to keeping things real—so that is what we mean by “the key to reality.”

There are two primary types of Authentication: Symmetric and Asymmetric. Atmel offers secure key storage devices for both types. These two important techniques take their names directly from whether the keys on each side (i.e. the host and client sides) are the same or different.

Symmetric Authentication

If the same secret key is used on the client and on the host, then the application is symmetric, just like the name suggests. Both of the symmetric keys must be protected because if either one gets out then the security will be lost. This is perhaps analogous to having two sets of car keys. Meaning, losing either one makes it easy for a thief to drive away with your car. So, the secret keys must stay secret.

Symmetric Keys are the Same

The identical keys on the host and client are used in mathematical calculations to test the reality of client devices. A very common mathematical calculation that is used is a hash function based upon a cryptographic algorithm (such as SHA). A hash operation produces a hash value (also called “digest”), which is a number of a specified length that is usually smaller than the numbers used as the inputs. A hash is a one-way operation, which means that the inputs cannot be recreated from the hash value.

With symmetric authentication a typical process is to challenge the client device to be authenticated by sending it a random number. The client then puts the random number challenge and a secret key into the hash algorithm to create a hash value, which is known as the “response.” Each challenge will generate a unique response.

It should be noted that cryptographers call a hash of a random number with a secret key a “Message Authentication Code” or “MAC.” The diagram below illustrates this process. Because the host key is the same on the host and client sides, the exact same calculation can run on the host. Once that happens, the hash values (“MACs”) from each can be compared. If the hash values match, the client is considered to be real. You can see that symmetric authentication is really a simple process, but it is loaded with mathematical elegance. Now let’s look at asymmetric authentication.

Hashing a Random Number with a Secret Key

Asymmetric Authentication.

Asymmetric keys are presented in public-private pairs. More specifically, the public and private keys are related to each other via a mathematical algorithm. An example would be the Elliptic Curve Cryptography (or “ECC”) algorithm. Only the private key has to be securely stored. Because the keys are different, asymmetric authentication cannot use the same calculate-and-compare process as symmetric.

Asymmetric requires more complicated techniques such as making digital signatures that are verified for authenticity (this is called “Sign-Verify”). An example of asymmetric authentication using ECC algorithms is Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (or “ECDSA”).  A major benefit of the Atmel ATECC108A device is that it can be used to easily implement ECDSA sign-verify. (The steps of ECDSA are very interesting, but they will be covered in a separate article). Note that an important trade-off between symmetric and asymmetric authentication is the speed of operation. For example, authentication time for the Atmel ATSHA204A is 12ms (typical) for symmetric versus more than a second for many microcontrollers to execute an asymmetric ECDSA operation.

Getting back to the keys:   The secret keys must stay secret. If keys are the keys to authentication (i.e. reality),  then secure storage of the secret keys is the key to SECURE authentication. And that is the real point here.

So the, how is secure storage implemented? The best way is to use hardware key storage devices that can withstand attacks that try to read the key(s). Atmel CryptoAuthentication products such as the ATSHA204AATECC108A  and ATAES132 implement hardware-based storage, which is much stronger than software based storage because of the defense mechanisms that only hardware can provide against attacks. Secure storage in hardware beats storage in software every time. Adding secure key storage is an inexpensive, easy, and ultra-secure way to protect firmware, software and hardware products from cloning, counterfeiting, hacking, as well as other malicious threats.

For more details on Atmel CryptoAuthentication products, please view the links above  or the introduction page CryptoAuthentication. Future Bits & Pieces articles will take in an in-depth look at how symmetric and asymmetric authentication is accomplished.