Forward secrecy for Google HTTPS (22 Nov 2011)

As announced on the Google Security Blog, Google HTTPS sites now support forward secrecy. What this means in practice is two things:

Firstly, the preferred cipher suite for most Google HTTPS servers is ECDHE-RSA-RC4-SHA. If you have a client that supports it, you'll be using that ciphersuite. Chrome and Firefox, at least, support it.

Previously we were using RSA-RC4-SHA, which means that the client (i.e. browser) picks a random key for the session, encrypts it with the server's public key and sends it to the server. Since only the holder of the private key can decrypt the session key, the connection is secure.

However, if an attacker obtains the private key in the future then they can decrypt recorded traffic. The encrypted session key can be decrypted just as well in ten years time as it can be decrypted today and, in ten years time, the attacker has much more computing power to break the server's public key. If an attacker obtains the private key, they can decrypt everything encrypted to it, which could be many months of traffic.

ECDHE-RSA-RC4-SHA means elliptic curve, ephemeral Diffie-Hellman, signed by an RSA key. You can see a previous post about elliptic curves for an introduction, but the use of elliptic curves is an implementation detail.

Ephemeral Diffie-Hellman means that the server generates a new Diffie-Hellman public key for each session and signs the public key. The client also generates a public key and, thanks to the magic of Diffie-Hellman they both generate a mutual key that no eavesdropper can know.

The important part here is that there's a different public key for each session. If the attacker breaks a single public key then they can decrypt only a single session. Also, the elliptic curve that we're using (P-256) is estimated to be as strong as a 3248-bit RSA key (by ECRYPT II), so it's unlikely that the attacker will ever be able to break a single instance of it without a large, quantum computer.

While working on this, Bodo Möller, Emilia Kasper and I wrote fast, constant-time implementations of P-224, P-256 and P-521 for OpenSSL. This work has been open-sourced and submitted upstream to OpenSSL. We also fixed several bugs in OpenSSL's ECDHE handling during deployment and those bug fixes are in OpenSSL 1.0.0e.

Session Tickets

The second part of forward secrecy is dealing with TLS session tickets.

Session tickets allow a client to resume a previous session without requiring that the server maintain any state. When a new session is established the server encrypts the state of the session and sends it back to the client, in a session ticket. Later, the client can echo that encrypted session ticket back to the server to resume the session.

Since the session ticket contains the state of the session, and thus keys that can decrypt the session, it too must be protected by ephemeral keys. But, in order for session resumption to be effective, the keys protecting the session ticket have to be kept around for a certain amount of time: the idea of session resumption is that you can resume the session in the future, and you can't do that if the server can't decrypt the ticket!

So the ephemeral, session ticket keys have to be distributed to all the frontend machines, without being written to any kind of persistent storage, and frequently rotated.


We believe that forward secrecy provides a fairly significant benefit to our users and we've contributed our work back to OpenSSL in the hope that others will make use of it.