Home < MIT Bitcoin Expo < Mit Bitcoin Expo 2019 < Signature Scheme Security Properties

Signature Scheme Security Properties

Transcript By: Bryan Bishop

Tags: Security, Schnorr

Category: Conference

Name: Andrew Poelstra

Topic: Secure Signatures - Harder Than You Think

Location: MIT Bitcoin Expo 2019

Date: March 9th 2019

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gc1DSk8wlw

Twitter announcement: https://twitter.com/kanzure/status/1104399812147916800

Transcript completed by: Bryan Bishop


Hi everyone. Can you hear me alright? Is my mic? Okay, cool. I was scheduled to talk about the history of schnorr signatures in bitcoin. I want to do that, but I only have 20-30 minutes to talk here.

Instead, I am going to talk about only one particular piece of that history, which is the security model surrounding not just Schnorr signatures but extensions to Schnorr signatures. I’m going to focus on the security model involved.

Schnorr signatures

Let me start by describing what a Schnorr signature is. There’s two purposes to this, depending on which side of the audience you’re sitting on: one is to intimidate you with algebra, and the other is to show that what a schnorr signature is is really this one simple equation.

Schnorr signatures is a digital signature algorithm which has been proposed to replace Bitcoin’s ECDSA algorithm. There’s a few reasons, like shorter signatures. A signature has two objects that are computed by these two simple equations. The only operation here is the hash function and there’s a plus sign and a multiplication operation. There’s no division, no modular inversion, nothing exotic, not computing an elliptic curve point and taking an x-coord. It’s all straightforward grade 9 algebra stuff. You get a Schnorr signature from this.

You’d think, seeing an equation like this, that maybe you could turn this into a proposal for Bitcoin and it would be straightforward and then you’d have a BIP and you could then fight about deployment or something. But in fact, it turns out there’s a lot more to Schnorr signatures than this simple equation. This equation gives you knowledge whether a signature is correct, that someone who knows a secret value x can sign.

But there’s another property that signatures need to have, which is security. Nobody else should be able to forge a signature. Let me try to formalize this intuition and show why this might be difficult.

By the way, this is a verification equation and this is a signing equation. They are very similar.

Secure signatures

What does it mean for a signature to be secure? First, you want to formalize your attacker. In this case, an attacker is any probabilistic polynomial-time algorithm. Basically, any computer program, anybody who has some amount of hardware, including like a quantum computer (although it turns out that our signature is not secure against quantum attackers). So our attacker is operating in the physical universe, and it needs to be impractical.

The intuition we have for signatures is that nobody can sign a message without knowing a secret key. Suppose you have a polytime algorithm that can produce a signature; maybe I can use this algorithm to extract the secret key from it. If any such algorithm would be ameniable to this kind of modification, then somehow the algorithm must know the secret key in the first place to get it, right? Well, no. That’s a good way to think about it, but it’s not true. It’s possible to create fake signatures without knowing a secret key, in case you have a sufficiently broken signature algorithm like one where the verification algorithm looks at a few bytes and then says sure it’s done. This is trivially forgeable because any pile of bytes would be a forgery according to our definition, but it’s not going to be secure: anyone can produce a pile of bytes.

We need to change this from just extracting secret keys, to maybe forgery. So now we say, can an attacker be created that would sign some message that I choose? If nobody can do that, then maybe that’s sufficient for security. Well, no, that’s not really far enough: let’s say that the attacker is allowed to choose the message and do chosen message attacks. Our security definition is now, no probabilistic polytime algorithm is able to choose a message and forge a signature. That sounds pretty good and pretty general- we’re letting any algorithm run, we’re letting it choose a message, what more do we need? In fact, there are signatures that are insecure in this regime, one example of which is Winternit’s signatures which are used by some altcoins out there. The way these signatures work is that they are so-called one-time signatures. If someone produces enough signatures, and someone observes them, they can extract some information and create forgeries. If the algorithm sees signatures, then it can’t help it.

We define an attacker as a probabilistic polytime algorithm that is allowed to request signatures on whatever series of messages it wants, we have to give it to the algorithm and give it valid signatures. Given that, the attacker is allowed to choose another message and produce a forgery on that. In many protocols, we let it do as many queries as possible, to make sure that the definition is maximally defined. Really what we’re doing here is we’re trying to define an attacker to be as powerful as reasonably possible, where reasonable means can we prove security.

We want to give the attacker more and more power, and then at some point in principle it should be clear that there are no more powerful adversaries that could be reasonably called an adversary. We started out with a weak adversary, and then we said well we want the attacker to have as much information as possible. So we’ll let it ask for a whole bunch of other messages and signature pairs.

But really that’s not enough; maybe you could find an attacker that could make zero-knowledge proofs of the same key or weird functionality like that. If you want to do that, you have to get into a security model called universal composability, we don’t have time to get into that, but it’s much stronger.

There’s a few more ways to strengthen this. You could say, well, maybe the attacker is allowed to request a signature where on the message it’s going to forge on, and in this case you don’t want to give back the same signature that doesn’t count as a forgery so let’s say it has to give you back a different signature. We can do that.

Something relevant to bitcoin is this last point: what if you let the attacker choose the signing key? If your attacker can choose a signing key, then of course they can produce signatures. We can’t just let the attacker choose the key. But suppose we give it a public key, and we say the attacker is allowed to derive bip32 child keys, and can it produce forgeries then? The answer would be yes, for a naieve form of Schnorr signatures where e is the hash of a public key, R, and message, and if we didn’t have the pubkey in there then this would be insecure against that more general model.

  • If nobody (i.e. no probabilistic polytime algorithm) can extract the secret key from the signatures?
  • If nobody can sign a given message without the secret key?
  • If nobody can sign any message?
  • What if they’re allowed to request signatures on other messages?
  • What if they’re allowed to request signatures on the same message?
  • What if they chan change the key?
  • What if they freely choose the key?

I raddled off some words about the definition of a secure signature. But these are actually standard definitions in the literature. The one where an attacker can request a bunch of messages is what it means to be a “secure signature”. A signature that is secure against existential forgeries under a chosen message attack, a chosen message meaning the signer can choose the message.

If we allow it to request messages on the signature it’s going to forge, then it’s called a “strong signature” which is slightly stronger. If we let it choose the key, then as far as I know there’s not really a name for this definition in the literature because most of the academic signatures don’t consider this as part of their security model. It assumes that a public key is somehow associated to some identity (like your key fob when you try to get into the building) and it’s not going to change. They take the public key as fixed, and then they move on with their life. We’re seeing a hint that maybe things are not so simple in bitcoin, because this is insufficient to protect bip32 child keys based on signatures on the parent key.

Even more than just the security definition, there’s other difficulties when trying to deploy this in practice. In my first slide with those equations, I made it look less scary. But I didn’t mention that some of the values need to be uniformly random.

Uniformly random distributions in signature schemes

Uniformly random means that any probabilistic polytime algorithm is unable to distinguish the values generated by whatever you’re claiming to be uniformly random from an actually uniformly random distribution. This is not a sufficient definition, but I’m not going to get into why.

I realize that uniform randomness is hard to come by, especially if you’re signing with a keyfob or a hardware wallet or something with a strange ability to gather randomness from the environment and also needs to run on low power. One thing you might ask is, what happens if you screw up the randomness? Say it’s supposed to generate a 256-bit random number, and say you’re 7th bit tends to be 1. What is the danger in that? Well it turns out the danger in that is that if you produce a signature, you will leak your secret key. There’s no room for biased randomness at all, which is frustrating because when you read a paper describing a signature scheme, there’s usually a statement that it is drawn from a uniformly random distribution which most people don’t think about it. Suppose you don’t have a hardware random number generator, and you’re worried about maybe it’s going to be biased, what am I going to do? Even if I think I can produce uniformly random values, how could I convince anyone that they are uniformly random? That I didn’t somehow backdoor this randomness and introduce bias in some way? I can even bias it in very subtle difficult to detect ways. So this is something we worry about.

There’s a standard solution to this. You take this value k, part of your signature, and this value k needs to be uniformly random. You hash your secret key and your message. We assume that our hash function is uniformly random in some nebulous sense called the random oracle heuristic. It turns out that if your hash function is sha256 then this assumption is held up very well in practice. It’s not really random; in particular, if you give the same inputs to the same function, you get the same output. You’d think a random output would change. And it’s not really random because if I give you a sha256 evaluator then you would be able to plug in some input and get the same output, which again is not random. But because I’m going to be plugging in my secret key in here and I’m going to assume my secret key is unguessable, I can take a hash function that is seeded with my secret key and we can take this as uniformly random for our purposes. This is great, this works, people do this. The result of hashing the secret key and the message is that if someone changes the message, someone gets a different uniformly random k value. This is called a nonce. You’re repeating your signature too, which isn’t that bad, anyone can copy-paste a signature.

A question you might ask is, what about your secret key itself? Does the secret key need to be uniformly random? As near as I can tell, the answer is no. Don’t do that just because I said “no”, but it seems like the answer is no. You need to have sufficient entropy so that nobody can guess it. In practice this seems to be secure, which is surprising. You read a paper, you have the arrow dollar sign symbol indicating a uniformly random distribution saying draw your secret key uniformly randomly, and draw your nonce uniformly randomly… but it’s the second one that is more dangerous where if you bias even a 256-bit number by 1 bit, you leak your key and you lose all of your money. That’s the kind of thing that really surprises you in real life, not when you read it but when you try to implement it. You’re trying to write code, and people can keep breaking your stuff in ways that the paper didn’t even mention.


Moving on, let me talk about one extension. I have two extensions to Schnorr that I want to talk about. One is called sign-to-contract, and the other is multisignatures. All I want to do is highlight the security properties of this.

There is a construction called sign-to-contract where you take a signature, you have this value R called a public nonce, it’s just kG where G is the elliptic curve generator. You can turn R into a commitment. You can hide data in there. You can timestamp data in the blockchain.

You take your nonce, you take your normal signature scheme and compute this nonce R, you hash the nonce along with some other secret message you want to covertly sign, and then you add that to the original R and you get this new R value. You use this as the nonce in your signature. This works, it’s easy, and it’s algebraically trivial.

This lets you take a signature that seems to be a signature on a transaction, and it is, but it’s also a signature on some other auxiliary data. You can sign the current state of your wallet, as a timestamping mechanism. You can take arbitrary data from people and anchor it into the blockhain, and you get a timestamp in zero additional space.

Sign-to-contract replay attack


Sign-to-contract seems really straightforward: you can see the only way I’ve changed the signature scheme is that I’ve modified the R value, which is public data. So surely you should be able to tweak it and not have anything bad happen. You’re not messing with any secret keys here. The final signature is based on adding that hash.

How could this go wrong for me? You don’t even need a security model- it’s all public data. Well, that’s not true. Here’s the thing. In the last slide, I said hey uniform randomness is hard so why not generate our nonce by hashing a secret key and a message? Well, if you have a hardware wallet that is doing that, and then you ask it to do sign-to-contract, and say hey in the next signature you make I want you to not only sign this message but I also want you to commit to this other data. If the wallet is generating a secret nonce by hashing the real message and a secret key, then if you ask it for multiple signatures on the same message but different commitments then you can solve the resulting signatures and extract the secret key. The reason is the equation here, which I am not going to go into.

Oops, so we have to think harder about this. The awful thing is that this isn’t something that would be caught by a security model in a published paper. The reason being is that the vulnerability comes from our replacing our uniformly random nonces with some sort of hashes, which we argued was correct for single signatures. Intuitively and very well reviewed and audited, in a way that didn’t actually correct for single signatures. We tried to add something unrelated, tweaking public data, what could go wrong? Well somehow these two things interact.

Sign-to-contract as an anti-nonce-sidechannel measure

There’s a solution. There’s four things, the first three cause you to lose your key, and the fourth one I think saves you. It took us many iterations to get to this. Every time we tried something, something else would cause a problem and go wrong. I would like to say more about this, but I want to continue.

((equations go here))


Let’s talk about multisignatures real quick. Multisignatures are the big reason we want Schnorr signatures in bitcoin versus the existing ECDSA. The nice simple Schnorr equation I showed you has some nice algebraic properties. If you have a whole bunch of people producing signatures, you can just add the signatures together and the result will be somtehing that you can still verify.

If everybody uses the same challenge to create a signature, and you add those together, you actually get a single signature on a single message with a single public key where that public key is jointly controlled by all of the participants. This is really straightforward. I took my first thing- from my first slide- and I said now everyone is going to do this independently. At each step, everyone tells each other what they did. Then they add up the values. You do that twice, then you get a signature, a multisignature. It’s straightforward, fast, algebraically simple. It’s correct, but is it secure? Sure, you can see the signature is the same as the original Schnorr signature so what could go wrong?

The real cool thing about Schnorr signatures is that the difference between signing and verification is that the equation only changes by including those multiplications by the generator G. I apologize for not giving any introduction to elliptic curves before saying that. If you’re familiar, you’ll appreciate that.

Secure multisignatures

musig: https://eprint.iacr.org/2018/068 and https://blockstream.com/2018/01/23/musig-key-aggregation-schnorr-signatures.html

What does it mean for a multisignature to be secure? So now the attacker can be one of the signers? Can the attacker freely choose a key? How about all the signers? All but one? Also, can you start multiple signing sessions in parallel?

Secure multisignatures isn’t just that nobody can forge. Now you have to think about all the different signers. You have a whole collection of signers, and none of them individually control the entire signing key? Well, what if one of them is bad? Or what if all of them are bad? If all but one are bad, that’s something interesting. Suppose you have one honest signer in the middle of a multisignature, what can happen to them? Also, suppose you have one honest signer, and they are asking to be using the same key in multiple multisignatures at the same time. Note that there are multiple rounds in this algorithm. You could manipulate responses or do other bad things. It really makes the security model more complicated.

When I start layering on these different things that an attacker can do in a multisignature setting, we’re moving away from the intuition from the first few slides that we had defined the most powerful attacker. It should start to be uncomfortable. We’re no longer able to enumerate all the possible attacks. This should make you uncomfortable. This is life; you end up with bigger security models that need to be reviewed very carefully.

In fact, the multisignature scheme that I described earlier where everybody has everything is insecure. There’s multiple problems. One of the problems is that the attacker can choose their key adaptively. This is called the rogue key attack. Suppose you have one attacker and a lot of honest participants, and they all want to produce a signature together. The attacker can wait for everyone else to provide their public keys, and then the attacker makes their public key by subtracting out everyone else’s public key and saying hey my public key is this difference here. When you add these together, the result is just the attacker’s public key by itself even though it was supposed to be the sum of everyone’s public keys. So everyone in the protocol thinks it’s a multisignature key, but it’s actually just a single-signer key controlled by the attacker.

There are a few iterations of ways to prevent this. In the end, in a signature scheme called MuSig, we hash everybody’s public keys together, and then everyone’s individual– they are required to hash their signing key in the index of the session with that hash of everyone’s keys, and it turns out that prevents these kinds of attack.

Then there’s another attack, where basically, there’s a parallel attak: your attacker waits for everyone to choose their R values. They open 1000 signing sessions in parallel, they wait for all the honest participants to choose R values and nonces. The attacker can grind these values, and they are able to get a free signature by doing enough parallel signing sessions and grinding their values. This was something we didn’t see; we published a paper, and it almost got through the peer review process, where someone published a paper responding to our preprint. They didn’t say our scheme was insecure; they said the proof technique in our paper could provably be shown to not be able to use our proof in the way we did. Six months later, there was a proof that it was insecure too. So anyway, you add a pre-commit phase to your signature protocol. The issue is that the attacker chooses their nonce after everyone else chooses their nonce, so you add a pre-commit phase to your signature protocol. So now everyone exchanges a hash of their nonce, then everyone exchanges their nonces, adds them up, then everybody exchanges their signatures and adds them up.

See also