For the past few months, I’ve been working on a project for a secure software supply chain, and one topic that seems to always start passionate discussions is the software signatures. The President’s Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity (EO) is a pivotal point for the industry. One of the requirements is for vendors to document the supply chain for software artifacts. Proving the provenance of a piece of software is a crucial part of the software supply chain, and signatures play a main role in the process. Though, there are conflicting views on how signatures should work. There is the traditional PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) approach that is well established in the enterprises, but there are other traditional and emerging technologies that are brought up in discussions. These include PGP key signatures, SSH key signatures, and the emerging ephemeral key (or keyless) signatures (here, here, and lately here).
While PKI is well established, the PKI shortcomings were outlined by Bruce Schneier and Carl Elisson more than 20 years ago in their paper. The new approaches are trying to overcome those shortcomings and democratize the signatures the same way Let’s Encrypt democratized HTTPS for websites. Though, the question is whether those new technologies improve security over PKI? And if so, how? In a series of posts, I will lay out my view of the problem and the pros and cons of using one or another signing approach, how the trust is established, and how to manage the signing keys. I will start with the basics using simple examples that relate to everyday life and map those to the world of digital signatures.
In this post, I will go over the identity, signature, and attestation concepts and explain why those matter when establishing trust.
What is Identity?
Think about your own experience. Your identity is you! You are identified by your gender, skin color, facial and body characteristics, thumbprint, iris print, hair color, DNA etc. Unless you have an identical twin, you are unique in the world. Even if you are identical twins, there are differences like thumbprints and iris prints that make you unique. The same is true for other entities like enterprises, organizations, etc. Organizations have names, tax numbers, government registrations, addresses, etc. As a general rule, changing your identity is hard if not impossible. You can have plastic surgery but you cannot change your DNA. The story may be a bit different for organizations that can rename themselves, get bought or sold, change headquarters, etc. but it is still pretty easy to uniquely identify organizations.
All the above points that identities are:
- and impossible (or very hard) to change
In the digital world, identities are an abstract concept. In my opinion, it is wrong to think that identities can be changed in both the physical and the digital world. Although we tend to think that they can be changed, this is not true – what can be changed is the way we prove our identity. We will cover that shortly but before that, let’s talk about trust.
If you are a good friend of mine, you may be willing to trust me but if you just met me, your level of trust will be pretty low. Trust is established based on historical evidence. The longer you know me, and the longer I behave honestly, the more you will be willing to trust me. Sometimes I may not be completely honest, or I may borrow some money from you and not return them. But I may buy you a beer every time we go out and offset that cost and you may be willing to forgive me. It is important to note that trust is very subjective, and while you may be very forgiving, another friend of mine maybe not. He may decide that I am not worth his trust and never borrow me money again.
How do We Prove Our Identity?
In the physical world, we prove our identity using papers like a driving license, a passport, an ID card, etc. Each one of those documents is issued for a purpose:
- The driving license is mainly used to prove you can drive a motorized vehicle on the US streets. Unless it is an enhanced driving license, you (soon) will not be able to use it to board a domestic flight. However, you cannot cross borders with your driving license and you cannot use it to even rent a car in Europe (unless you have an international driving license).
- To cross borders you need a passport. The passport is the only document that is recognized by border authorities in other countries that you visit. You cannot use your US driving license to cross the borders in Europe. The interesting part is that you do not need a driving license to get a passport or vice versa.
- You also have your work badge. Your work badge identifies you as an employee of a particular organization. Despite the fact that you have a driving license and a passport, you cannot enter the buildings without your badge. However, to prove to your employer that you are who you are for them to issue you the badge, you must have a driving license or a passport.
In the digital world, there are similar concepts to prove our identity.
- You can use a username, password and another factor (2FA/MFA token) to prove your identity to a particular system.
- App secret that you can generate in a system can also be used to prove your identity.
- OAuth or SSO (single sign-on) token issued by a third party is another way to prove your identity to a particular system. That system though needs to trust the third party.
- SSH key can be an alternate way to prove your identity. You can use it in conjunction with username/password combination or separately.
- You can use PGP key to prove your identity to an email recipient.
- Or use a TLS certificate to prove the identity of your website.
- And finally, you can use an X.509 certificate to prove your identity.
As you can see, similar to the physical world, in the digital world you have multiple ways to prove your identity to a system. You can use more than one way for a single system. The example that comes to mind is GitHub – you can use app secret or SSH key to push your changes to your repository.
How Does Trust Tie to the Concepts Above? Let’s say that I am a good developer. My code published on GitHub has a low level of bugs, it is well structured, well documented, easy to use, and updated regularly. You decide that you can trust my GitHub account. However, I also have DockerHub account that I am negligent with – I don’t update the containers regularly, they have a lot of vulnerabilities, and are sloppily built. Although you are my friend and you trust my GitHub account, you are not willing to trust my DockerHub account. This example shows that trust is not only subjective but also based on context.
OK, What Are Signatures?
Here is where things become interesting! In the physical world, a signature is a person’s name written in that person’s handwriting. Just the signature does not prove my identity. Wikipedia’s entry for signature defines the traditional function of a signature as follows:
…to permanently affix to a document a person’s uniquely personal, undeniable self-identification as physical evidence of that person’s personal witness and certification of the content of all, or a specified part, of the document.
The keyword above is self-identification. This word in the definition has a lot of implications:
- First, as a signer, I can have multiple signatures that I would like to use for different purposes. I.e. my identity may use different signatures for different purposes.
- Second, nobody attests to my signature. This means that the trust is put in a single entity – the signer.
- Third, a malicious person can impersonate me and use my signature for nefarious purposes.
Interestingly though, we are willing to accept the signature as proof of identity depending on the level of trust we have in the signer. For example, if I borrow $50 from you and give you a receipt with my signature the I will pay you back in 30 days, you may be willing to accept it even if you don’t know me too much (i.e. your level of trust is relatively low). This is understandable because we decide to lower our level of trust to just self-identification. I can increase your level of trust if I show you my driving license that has my signature printed on it and you can compare both signatures. However, showing you my driver’s license is actually an attestation, which is covered in detail below.
In the digital world, to create a signature, you need a private key and to verify a signature, you need a public key (check the Digital Signature article on Wikipedia). The private and the public key are related and work in tandem – the private key signs the content and the public key verifies the signature. You own both but keep the private secret and publish the public to everybody to use. From the examples I have above, you can use PGP, SSH, and X.509 to sign content. However, they have differences:
- PGP is a self-generated key-pair with additional details like name and email address included in the public certificate, that can be used for (pseudo)identification of the entity that signs the content. You can think of it as similar to a physical signature, where, in addition to the signature you verbally provide your name and home address as part of the signing process.
- SSH is also a self-generated key pair but has no additional information attached. Think of it as the plain physical signature.
- With X.509 you have a few options:
- Self-generated key-pair similar to the PGP approach but you can provide more self-identifying information. When signing with such a private key you can assume that it is similar to the physical signature, where you verbally provide your name, address, and date of birth.
- Domain Validated (DV) certificate that validates your ownership of a particular domain (this is exactly what Let’s Encrypt does). Think of this as similar to a physical signature where you verbally provide your name, address, and date of birth as well as show a utility bill with your name and address as part of the signing process.
- Extended Validation (EV) certificate that validates your identity using legal documents. For example, this can be your passport as an individual or your state and tax registrations as an organization.
Both, DV and EV X.509 certificates are issued by Certificate Authorities (CA), which are trusted authorities on the Internet or within the organization.
Note: X.509 is actually an ITU standard defining the format of public-key certificates and is at the basis of the PKI. The key pair can be generated using different algorithms. Though, the term X.509 is used (maybe incorrectly) as a synonym for the key-pair also.
Without any other variables in the mix, the level of trust that you may put on the above digital approaches would most probably be the following: (1-Lowest) SSH, (2) PGP and self-signed X.509, (3) DV X,509, and (4-Highest) EC X.509. Keep in mind that DV and EV X.509 are actually based on attestation, which is described next.
So, What is Attestation?
We finally came to it! Attestation, according to Meriam-Webster dictionary, is an official verification of something as true or authentic. In the physical world, one can increase the level of trust in a signature by having a Notary attest to the signature (lower level of trust) and adding government apostille (higher level of trust used internationally). In many states notaries are required (or highly encouraged) to keep a log for tracking purposes. While you may be OK with having only my signature on a paper for $50 loan, you certainly would want to have a notary attesting to a contract for selling your house to me for $500K. The level of trust in a signature increases when you add additional parties who attest to the signing process.
In the digital world, attestation is also present. As we’ve mentioned above, CAs act as the digital notaries who verify the identity of the signer and issue digital certificates. This is done for the DV and EV X.509 certificates only though. There is no attestation for PGP, SSH, and self-signed X.509 certificates. For digital signatures, there is one more traditional method of attestation – the Timestamp Authority (TSA). The TSA’s role is to provide an accurate timestamp of the signing to avoid tampering with the time by changing the clock on the computer where the signing occurs. Note that the TSA attests only for the accuracy of the timestamp of signing and not for the identity of the signer. One important thing to remember here is that without attestation you cannot fully trust the signature.
Here is a summary of the signing approaches and the level of trust we discussed so far.
Signing Keys and Trust
|Signing Approach||Level of Trust|
|SSH Key||1 - Lowest|
|PGP Key||2 - Low|
|X.509 Self-Signed||2 - Low|
|X.509 DV||3 - Medium|
|X.509 EV||4 - High|
Now, that we’ve established the basics let’s talk about the validity period and why it matters.
Validity Period and Why it Matters?
Every identification document that you own in the physical world has an expiration date. OK, I lied! I have a German driving license that doesn’t have an expiration date. But this is an exception, and I can claim that I am one of the last who had that privilege – newer driving licenses in Germany have an expiration date. US driving licenses have an expiration date and an issue date. You need to renew your passport every five years in the US. Different factors determine why an identification document may expire. For a driving license, the reason may be that you lost some of your vision and you are not capable of driving anymore. For a passport, it may be because you moved to another country, became a citizen, and forfeit your right to be a US citizen.
Now, let’s look at physical signatures. Let’s say that I want to issue a power of attorney to you to represent me in the sale of my house while I am on a business trip for four weeks in Europe. I have two options:
- Write you a power of attorney without an expiration date and have a notary attest to it (else nobody will believe you that you can represent me).
- Write you a power of attorney that expires four weeks from today and have a notary attest to it.
Which one do you think is more “secure” for me? Of course the second one! The second power of attorney will give you only a limited period to sell my house. While this does not prevent you from selling it in a completely different transaction than the one I want, you are still given some time constraints. The counterparts in the transaction will check the power of attorney and will note the expiration date. If there is a final meeting four weeks and a day from now, that will require you to sign the final papers for the transaction, they should not allow you to do that because the power of attorney is not valid anymore.
Now, here is an interesting situation that often gets overlooked. Let’s say that I sign the power of attorney on Jan 1st, 2022. The power of attorney is valid till the end of day Jan 28th, 2022. I use my driving license to identify myself to the notary. My driving license has an expiration date of Jan 21st, 2022. Also, the notary’s license expires on Jan 24th, 2022. What is the last date that the power of attorney is valid? I will leave this exploration for one of the subsequent posts.
Time constraints are a basic measure to increase my security and prevent you from selling my house and pocketing the money later in the year. I will expand on this example in my next post where I will look at different ways to exploit signatures. But the basic lesson here is: the more time you have to exploit something, the higher probability there is for you to do so. Also, another lesson is: put an expiration date on all of your powers of attorney!
How does this look in the digital world?
- SSH keys do not have expiration dates. Unless you provide the expiration date in the signature itself, the signature will be valid forever.
- PGP keys have expiration dates a few years in the future. I just created a new key and it is set to expire on Jan 8th, 2026. If I sign an artifact with it and don’t provide an expiration date for the signature, it will be considered valid until Jan 8th, 2026.
- X.509 certificates also have long expiration dates – 3, 12, or 24 months. Let’s Encrypt certificates have 3 months expiration dates. Root CA certificates have even longer expiration dates, which can be dangerous as we will explore in the future. Let’s Encrypt was the first to reduce the length of validity of their certificates to increase the security of certificate compromise because domains change hands quite often. Enterprises followed suit because the number of stolen enterprise certificates is growing.
Note: In the next post, I will expand a little bit more into the relationships between keys and signatures but for now, you can use them as the example above where I mention the various validity periods for documents used for the power of attorney.
If nothing else, here are the main takeaways that you should remember from this post:
- Signatures cannot infer identities. Signatures can be forged even in the digital world.
- One identity can have many signatures. Those signatures can be used for different purposes.
- For a period of time, a signature can infer identity if it is attested to. However, the longer time passes, the lower the trust in this signature should be. Also, the period of time is subjective and dependent on the risk level of the signature consumer.
- To increase security, signatures must expire. The shorter the expiration period, the higher the security (but also other constraints should be put in place).
- Before trusting a signature, you should verify if the signed asset is still trustable. This is in line with the zero-trust principle for security: “Never trust, always verify!”.
Take a note that in the last bullet point, I intentionally use the term “asset is trustable” and not “signature is valid”. In the next post, I will go into more detail about what that means, how signatures can be exploited, and how context can provide value.