Testing Security Keys (08 Oct 2017)

Last time I reviewed various security keys at a fairly superficial level: basic function, physical characteristics etc. This post considers lower-level behaviour.

Security Keys implement the FIDO U2F spec, which borrows a lot from ISO 7816-4. Each possible transport (i.e. USB, NFC, or Bluetooth) has its own spec for how to encapsulate the U2F messages over that transport (e.g. here's the USB one). FIDO is working on much more complex (and more capable) second versions of these specs, but currently all security keys implement the basic ones.

In essence, the U2F spec only contains three functions: Register, Authenticate, and Check. Register creates a new key-pair. Authenticate signs with an existing key-pair, after the user confirms physical presence, and Check confirms whether or not a key-pair is known to a security key.

In more detail, Register takes a 32-byte challenge and a 32-byte appID. These are intended to be SHA-256 hashes, but are opaque and can be anything. The challenge acts as a nonce, while the appID is bound to the resulting key and represents the context of the key. For web browsers, the appID is the hash of a URL in the origin of the login page.

Register returns a P-256 public key, an opaque key handle, the security key's batch certificate, and a signature, by the public key in the certificate, of the challenge, appID, key handle, and public key. Since the security keys are small devices with limited storage, it's universally the case in the ones that I've looked at that the key handle is actually an encrypted private key, i.e. the token offloads storage of private keys. However, in theory, the key handle could just be an integer that indexes storage within the token.

Authenticate takes a challenge, an appID, and a key handle, verifies that the appID matches the value given to Register, and returns a signature, from the public key associated with that key handle, over the challenge and appID.

Check takes a key handle and an appID and returns a positive result if the key handle came from this security key and the appID matches.

Given that, there are a number of properties that should hold. Some of the most critical:

  • The key handle should be encrypted; i.e. we shouldn't be able to find an ECDSA private key in there.
  • A key handle from one security key should not work with another, even of the same type.
  • If a security key is asked to generate hundreds of key-pairs, they should all be distinct.
  • All the signatures should have unique nonces, otherwise you have the PlayStation bug and can extract private keys.
  • The appID should actually be checked.

But there are a number of other things that would be nice to test:

  • Does the key handle have patterns? Ideally it would be indistinguishable from random to outside observers.
  • Is the key handle mutable? Really the whole thing should be authenticated.
  • Are the signatures correctly encoded? It's a very simple structure, but it's ASN.1 so there are corner-cases.
  • The USB protocol transmits 64-byte packets, the padding bytes at the end should all be zero, not random bits of memory. Are they?

So given all those desirable properties, how do various security keys manage?


Easy one first: I can find no flaws in Yubico's U2F Security Key.

VASCO SecureClick

I've acquired one of these since the round-up of security keys that I did last time so I'll give a full introduction here. (See also Brad's review.)

This is a Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) token, which means that it works with both Android and iOS devices. For non-mobile devices, it includes a USB-A BLE dongle. The SecureClick uses a Chrome extension for configuring and pairing the dongle, which works across platforms. The dongle appears as a normal USB device until it sees a BLE signal from the token, at which point it “disconnects” and reconnects as a different device for actually doing the U2F operation. Once an operation that requires user-presence (i.e. a Register or Authenticate) has completed, the token powers down and the dongle disconnects and reconnects as the original USB device again.

If you're using Linux and you configure udev to grant access to the vendor ID & product ID of the token as it appears normally, nothing will work because the vendor ID and product ID are different when it's active. The Chrome extension will get very confused about this.

However, once I'd figured that out, everything else worked well. The problem, as is inherent with BLE devices, is that the token needs a battery that will run out eventually. (It takes a CR2012 and can be replaced.) VASCO claims that it can be used 10 times a day for two years, which seems plausible. I did run the battery out during testing, but testing involves a lot of operations. Like the Yubico, I did not find any problems with this token.

I did have it working with iOS, but it didn't work when I tried to check the battery level just now, and I'm not sure what changed. (Perhaps iOS 11?)

Feitian ePass

ASN.1 DER is designed to be a “distinguished” encoding, i.e. there should be a unique serialisation for a given value and all other representations are invalid. As such, numbers are supposed to be encoded minimally, with no leading zeros (unless necessary to make a number positive). Feitian doesn't get that right with this security key: numbers that start with 9 leading zero bits have an invalid zero byte at the beginning. Presumably, numbers starting with 17 zero bits have two invalid zero bytes at the beginning and so on, but I wasn't able to press the button enough times to get such an example. Thus something like one in 256 signatures produced by this security key are invalid.

Also, the final eight bytes of the key handle seem to be superfluous: you can change them to whatever value you like and the security key doesn't care. That is not immediately a problem, but it does beg the question: if they're not being used, what are they?

Lastly, the padding data in USB packets isn't zeroed. However, it's obviously just the previous contents of the transmit buffer, so there's nothing sensitive getting leaked.


With this device, I can't test things like key handle mutability and whether the appID is being checked because of some odd behaviour. The response to the first Check is invalid, according to the spec: it returns status 0x9000 (“NO_ERROR”), when it should be 0x6985 or 0x6a80. After that, it starts rejecting all key handles (even valid ones) with 0x6a80 until it's unplugged and reinserted.

This device has the same non-minimal signature encoding issue as the Feitian ePass. Also, if you click too fast, this security key gets upset and rejects a few requests with status 0x6ffe.

USB padding bytes aren't zeroed, but appear to be parts of the request message and thus nothing interesting.

U2F Zero

A 1KiB ping message crashes this device (i.e. it stops responding to USB messages and needs to be unplugged and reinserted). Testing a corrupted key handle also crashes it and thus I wasn't able to run many tests.


The Key-ID (and HyperFIDO devices, which have the same firmware, I think) have the same non-minimal encoding issue as the Feitian ePass, but also have a second ASN.1 flaw. In ASN.1 DER, if the most-significant bit of a number is set, that number is negative. If it's not supposed to be negative, then a zero pad byte is needed. I think what happened here is that, when testing the most-significant bit, the security key checks whether the first byte is > 0x80, but it should be checking whether it's >= 0x80. The upshot is the sometimes it produces signatures that contain negative numbers and are thus invalid.

USB padding bytes aren't zeroed, and include data that was not part of the request or response. It's unlikely to be material, but it does beg the question of where it comes from.

The wrapped keys also have some unfortunate properties. Firstly, bytes 16 through 31 are a function of the device and the appID, thus a given site can passively identify the same token when used by different accounts. Bytes 48 through 79 are unauthenticated and, when altered, everything still works except the signatures are wrong. That suggests that these bytes are the encrypted private key (or the encrypted seed to generate it). It's not obvious that there's any vulnerability from being able to tweak the private key like this, but all bytes of the key handle should be authenticated as a matter of best practice. Lastly, bytes 32 through 47 can't be arbitrarily manipulated, but can be substituted with the same bytes from a different key handle, which causes the signatures to be incorrect. I don't know what's going on there.

Overall, the key handle structure is sufficiently far from the obvious construction to cause worry, but not an obvious vulnerability.