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PGP Identity Management: Secure Authentication and Authorization over the Internet

Created: 03 Sep 2004 • Updated: 05 Nov 2012 • 1 comment
Doug McLean's picture
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Access to computer services has conventionally been managed by means of secret passwords and centralized authentication databases. This method dates back to early timeshare systems. Now that applications have shifted to the Internet, it has become clear that the use of passwords is not scalable or secure enough for this medium. As an alternative, this paper discusses ways to implement federated identity management using strong cryptography and the same PGP® key infrastructure that is widely deployed on the Internet today.

Beyond Passwords

The inherent security weakness and management complexities of password-based authentication and centralized authorization databases make such systems inadequate for the real-world requirements of today's public networks. However, by applying the same proven cryptographic technology used today for securing email, we can construct a robust authentication system with the following goals in mind:

  • Provide a single sign-on experience in which users only need to remember one password, yet make it less vulnerable to "cracking" (hacking) attempts. 
  • Employ strong user authentication, extendable to multi-factor methods such as tokens or smart cards. The only copy of the authenticating (secret) material is in the possession of the user. 
  • Design such a system so it does not depend on any trusted servers and so that the compromise of any server does not affect the security of other servers or users.
  • Build on existing and well-accepted infrastructures that scale to fit a very large base of users and servers.
  • Enable users to sign on to the networks of more than one enterprise securely to conduct transactions. 

Authentication with Cryptographic Signatures

Email communications via the Internet face a security challenge similar to network user authentication. Messages traveling through public networks can be eavesdropped or counterfeited without much effort. Yet we have been able to successfully mitigate these risks by using public key cryptography to digitally sign and authenticate email messages.

With public key cryptography, each user generates a pair of mathematically related cryptographic keys. These keys are created in such a way that it is computationally infeasible to derive one key from the other. One of the keys is made publicly available to anyone who wishes to communicate with that user. The other key is kept private and never revealed to anyone else. This private key can be further secured by either placing it in a hardware token, encrypting it to a passphrase, or sometimes both. The holder uses the private key to digitally sign data. This digital signature can later be checked with the matching public key to ensure the data has not been tampered with and that it originated from the holder of the private key.

Because the holder of the private key is the only entity that can create a digital signature that verifies with the corresponding public key, there is a strong association between a user's identity and the ability to sign with that private key. Thus, a digital signature is strong testimony to the authenticity of the sender.

Cryptographic Challenge-Response

Because the public key functions as a user's identity in cyberspace, we can apply digital signatures to strongly authenticate users of network services. One way to do this is to challenge the user to sign a randomly generated message from the server. The server then verifies the identity of the user with the public key. This process is illustrated below.

  • The user initiates network service access.
  • The server looks up the user's public key in its authentication database.
  • The server then generates a random challenge string and sends the challenge to the client.
  • The client digitally signs the challenge string and returns the cryptographic signature to the server. The client also sends a counter-challenge string, which is used to verify the server's authenticity.
  • The server then checks the client's signature, and if successful, grants access. It also signs and returns the client's counter-challenge.

The use of such cryptographic user authentication offers a number of advantages over password-based systems. For example, if we employ the same key used to sign email, user authentication becomes as strong as the applied cryptographic digital signature algorithm. This approach reduces the need for users to periodically change the password, yet means they only need to remember one passphrase for all servers using this system. In addition, because the user maintains the only secret material in the system, compromising a server's user database results in only limited damage. All this can be accomplished without the risks associated with passphrase caches or key chains.

PGPuam - Proof of Concept

A public key login system was originally prototyped by the author as PGPuam and later distributed as sample code by Apple Computer in 1998 [PGPUAM]. Consisting of an AppleShare-IP client and server plugin, the system enabled a user to perform two-way strongly authenticated logins to an AppleShare-IP server from a Mac OS client. The cryptographic routines were provided by the PGP® Software Development Kit (SDK) shipped with PGP 6.0. The user interface was an extension of the existing AppleShare login and is illustrated below.

Although entirely functional, the PGPuam sample was never intended to be a shipping product. Rather, it was meant to be a practical demonstration of why public key cryptography should be treated as a core operating system component. Unfortunately in the late 1990s, cryptography was mired in both commercial and political constraints and widespread public key infrastructure (PKI) was slow to solidify. Nevertheless, PGPuam was successful in demonstrating that cryptography could be used for more than encrypting email. (Note that AppleShare-IP was just a convenient test platform. This concept is portable to file servers that support plugin authentication modules such as Apache modules or Windows GINA Authentication DLL.)

Authentication vs. Authorization

Although the PGPuam authentication effectively addresses most password management and single sign-on issues, it does nothing for user authorization. File servers still have to maintain some form of user-file access control database. Managing and maintaining these user authorization databases securely quickly become cumbersome for server administrators when more than a handful of servers are involved.

Consider, for example, what happens when a new user wishes to gain access to a server. The system administrator must create an account and add the user's name and access information to the appropriate server database. If the user wishes to access a number of servers, this process must be duplicated and kept synchronized on each server. This process is further exacerbated when the servers are owned by different organizations. Conversely, when a user departs from an organization, each of the servers must then be updated to reflect this change. Often, removed users are overlooked and left active on servers managed by different departments, thus creating a security risk.

Although have been a number of attempts to create automated systems to replicate or centralize the authorization databases, such as Kerberos, they all seem to share the following drawbacks:

  • The authorization server itself must be physically secure and is a critical link in the security chain.
  • Each server must be in communication with the authorization server to verify user identity and authorizations. This could be an unreasonable requirement for remote sites or devices such as a door badge reader, for example.
  • The authorization server is an ideal target for denial-of-service attacks because they affect all the servers managed by it.

PGPticket - Secure Federated User Authorization

A number of papers have described ingenious alternatives for distributing network service authorization [BFL] [SPKI]. In particular, the Simple Public Key Infrastructure (SPKI) model introduces a change in how authorization is performed for network services. Instead of maintaining a per-server database of users' names, passwords, and their corresponding access rights, we can apply digital-signature technology to create an authorization certificate. Think of this certificate as a digital "permission slip," valid only for a specific user's key over a certain period of time. The authorization certificate is signed by the organization or a proxy that owns the server and presented by the user upon accessing a restricted service.

One way to encapsulate these certificates is in the form of an OpenPGP standalone signature packet [OPENPGP]. These packets, known as PGPtickets , form the basis of a lightweight but very secure federated authorization protocol [PGPTICKET]. Each PGPticket contains the following fields:

The ISSUER who generates and signs the certificate, represented by a PGP® Key-ID.

The SUBJECT, the principal or set of principals to which the certificate grants its authorization.

A combination of KeyID, algorithm ID and key fingerprint is used to represent the subject.

VALIDITY is some combination of dates or online tests specifying the validity period/conditions of the certificate-typically, a creation and expiration date. This field might be useful for a school that wants to allow access to facilities for a limited period such as a term.

AUTHORIZATION is a structured field expressing the authorization this certificate grants to the subject. This data could be represented as SAML or some form of XML.

DELEGATION is a flag that indicates if the subject is allowed to delegate the specified authorization further.

PGPtickets can be issued in or out of band and are uniquely identified by the hash of the ticket packet, known as its Ticket-ID. The issuer verifies the subject's key information through standard practice, such as key fingerprint. Unless there is a specific requirement to encrypt the signed tickets, they can be returned via cleartext email or even placed on a public website and accessed by the Ticket-ID. The subject can even store the ticket in a database, smart card, or token.

The following illustrates the process of accessing a service with a PGPticket:

The user requests server access from the system admin. The user provides either a copy of his/her public key or makes the key available on a keyserver. The issuer verifies the validity of this key.

The administrator generates the PGPticket with appropriate authorizations and validity information, signing the ticket with the server admin key. The ticket is either posted in a public place or sent by email to the user.

The user retrieves the PGPticket and stores it in a local ticket database.

When the user attempts to access a network service, the client searches its ticket database for the appropriate ticket and sends a copy of it along with the access request.

The server checks the validity of the ticket by verifying the admin signature and expiration date of the ticket. The server then generates a random challenge string and sends the challenge to the client, requesting that the key specified in the ticket sign it.

The client signs and returns the challenge, which is checked by the server and, if successful, access is granted with the authorizations specified in the ticket.

The server only requires a copy of the root issuer's public key. It does not need to store copies of the subject's public keys because the key fingerprint is signed into the ticket body. The subject public key can be provided by request from the client and cached for later use. The same is true for delegated tickets. There is no specific requirement for a certifying authority, although its use is certainly not precluded and would make PGPtickets usable for small sites as well as enterprises.

One of the more interesting features of this design is that it enables the servers to function without access to a keyserver, independent of outside influences and resilient to denial-of-service attacks. This approach allows the use of PGPtickets for standalone devices where no network connection is practical, which opens a number of possibilities. PGPtickets can be transported in a token or Bluetooth device, and not only used for such things as Web Service or VPN access but also for restricted door access. In essence, PGPtickets could extend the usefulness of the PGP® PKI to the physical world.

PGPcoupon - Building on XML Web Services

Other interesting possibilities occur when you consider that PGPticket piggybacks on the flexibility of the PGP® key infrastructure. Consider a system that produced tickets automatically through some pay-per-use service and combine that with anonymous keys. Or what about using the key-splitting features to create a ticket that needs a certain amount of shares for service access?

Another possibility is to mix the technologies of PGPticket and XML object Web Services. A client could post a Web request for a proposal whereby vendors could reply with a PGP-signed coupon that would be honored by various distributors for a given period.

For example, imagine a school wants to purchase a number of books; various vendors compete for the order and send replies. In the replies is a 20% off PGPcoupon that Amazon or would honor. The client could then present this coupon upon purchase and have the transaction processed automatically.


I have outlined a number of alternate uses for PGP® technology that go far past email encryption. Most of these designs have been around for a number of years, but were untapped because of political or commercial restraints and, at times, lack of vision. Fortunately, the environment has changed and cryptographic technology can be used to solve a number of real-world identity management problems today.



Callas, J., Donnerhacke, L., Finney, H., Thayer, R. “OpenPGP Message Format.” RFC 2440, November 1998

Ellison, C. “SPKI Requirements.” RFC 2692, September 1999

Ellison, C., Frantz, B., Lampson, B., Rivest, R. “SPKI Certificate Theory.” RFC 2693, September 1999

Blaze, M., Feigenbaum, J., and Lacy, J. “Decentralized Trust Management.” Proceedings 1996 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy.

Moscaritolo, V. “PGPticket – A Secure Authorization Protocol.” Mac-Crypto Workshop, October 1998

Moscaritolo, V., Mione, A. draft-ietf-pgpticket-moscaritolo-mione-02.txt

Moscaritolo, V. “PGPuam – Public Key Authentication for AppleShare-IP.” Mac-Crypto Workshop, October 1998

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bobmarty's picture

I had the similiar problem and finally I found solution:

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