Rolling Your Own Crypto

We have all heard “don’t roll your own crypto” but what does it mean? Many developers (including myself) used to think it only extended to primitives (Curve25519) and ciphers (AES) but the saying extends further. Yet we have to implement and choose cryptographic protocols for our applications! So what are the issues with making an uninformed decision?

Disclaimer: I am not an expert; I am an opinionated person on the Internet.

A cryptographic protocol can be insecure regardless of the primitives. In cryptography, there is a lot of emphasis on “provable security” where a scheme is shown to reduce to the security of the underlying primitive. However, a user developing a custom protocol can introduce vulnerabilities despite using secure primitives.

This article will explain some of the difficulties involved in writing (and choosing!) cryptographic protocols. Below are some easy examples of common issues in custom schemes.

In this example, we use AESGCM to securely transmit a message but there is a fatal flaw.

import os
from cryptography.hazmat.primitives.ciphers.aead import AESGCM

key = AESGCM.generate_key(bit_length=128)
cipher = AESGCM(key)

msg = b"send $$ to Bob"
nonce = os.urandom(12)
ct = cipher.encrypt(nonce, data=msg, associated_data=nonce)
send(nonce + ct)


payload = recv()
nonce, ct = payload[:12], payload[12:]
print(cipher.decrypt(nonce, data=ct, associated_data=nonce))

It is trivial for an attacker to reply valid messages for the server to process (there are other issues too). Or what if we simply want to authenticate a user with the following scheme:

  1. \(A\) sends \(g^a\) to \(B\)
  2. \(B\) sends \(g^b\) to \(A\)
  3. \(A\) sends \(\left\langle A, \text{SIG}_A(g^a)\right\rangle\) to \(B\)
  4. \(B\) sends \(\left\langle B, \text{SIG}_B(g^b)\right\rangle\) to \(A\)

This ties the user identity to the exchanged keys to prevent a user from intercepting the key exchange. However, an active attacker, C, can reflect the messages from A to A which will authenticate successfully (called a reflection attack).

Writing Your Own Protocol

If you are considering writing your own bespoke protocol then you are likely to encounter the following problems.


Most systems (if not all) involve some form of identity which is later authenticated with another identity or endpoint. User identities are public keys stored by end-users or an intermediate party (i.e. the service itself).

To Be or Not To Be (a CA)

It is very tempting to use standard web X.509 certificates or adapt them. The adaptations generally mean (ab)using the existing fields or adding custom extensions to convey application specific information (e.g. R3 Corda 4). However, for a certificate to be trusted, it is signed by a Certificate Authority (CA) which will reject non-standard certificates. Consequently, as the protocol adapts, developers will continue to extend certificates which requires becoming a CA themselves to sign their custom certs.

The role of a CA is essential to define the trust of a system; anything not signed by the CA is untrusted. If a CA is compromised or unavailable (retires) then the entire system becomes vulnerable. Therefore a CA operator must ensure the utmost security and availability (e.g. Microsoft Trusted Root Program), which, frankly most organisations are not willing or able to do.

Plus, being a CA is a total pain administratively so it is usually best to offload that work to someone trustworthy.


If an identity is compromised or a user wants to upgrade to a new scheme then the existing (published) identity must be invalidated. Revocation is easy in principle but exceedingly hard in practice. There are two main ways to have built-in revocation:

  1. Include an intrinsic expiration
  2. Publish a list of all revoked identities (interactive or non-interactive)
  3. Recency challenge responses

Web certificates have generally moved to using short-lived certificates which need frequent renewal as well as publishing a Certificate Revocation List (CRL). UEFI SecureBoot uses signed modules which are checked against dbx. The revocation database is a list of module signatures which are marked as revoked but this list is monotonically increasing in size because modules are portable. The UEFI approach is extremely inflexible because once dbx reaches a certain size, the on-board flash chips will not be able to store the full revocation list.

Revocation usually rears its ugly head after the initial system design: If Alice revokes their identity, how does an offline Bob receive that revocation locally? Is it possible for Eve to kick Bob offline to exploit a cached identity? How does a user revoke their identity if they have lost access to their identity? These are crucial questions which are not always obvious when designers create an initial protocol but quickly become major roadblocks.

As an aside: revocation also adds more implementation complexity, as evidenced by the myriad of HTTPS clients that fail to check the certificate properly:

config := &tls.Config{
    VerifyConnection: func(cs tls.ConnectionState) error {
        opts := x509.VerifyOptions{
            DNSName: cs.ServerName,
            Intermediates: x509.NewCertPool(),
        for _, cert := range cs.PeerCertificates[1:] {
        // Verify does not check revocation!
        _, err := cs.PeerCertificates[0].Verify(opts)
        return err
dialer := tls.Dialer{ Config: config };
conn, err := dialer.Dial("tcp", "");

This snippet will successfully connect on Linux but will fail on Darwin, Windows, and iOS (Certificate.Verify will perform undocumented rudimentary validity checks on these platforms). However, the necessity of certificate revocation is somewhat controversial. Despite this, other instances of revocation are crucial to avoid users from interacting with compromised or impersonated identities.

Key Distribution

Once a protocol has defined identities then the protocol must distribute those information using those identities, often to establish a secure channel. However, key distribution has a host of subtlties regarding privacy and legality. The key exchange must be authenticated to prevent an active attacker from intercepting all communication between two parties. For example: if A and B are proxied by C then C can transparently view all encrypted communication.

  1. \(A\) sends \(g^a\) to \(C\)
  2. \(C\) sends \(g^c\) to \(A\)
  3. \(C\) sends \(g^{c’}\) to \(B\)
  4. \(B\) sends \(g^b\) to \(C\)

The key exchange must be authenticated (called an AKE). However, an AKE can still pose issues affecting privacy. to demonstrate this, a key exchange may want to protect the identity of a party of the handshake to prevent an active attacker from retrieving information from a peer.

  1. \(A\) sends \(g^a\) to \(B\)
  2. \(B\) sends \(\left\langle g^b, B, \text{SIG}_B(\ldots)\right\rangle\) to \(A\)
  3. \(A\) sends \(\left\langle A, \text{SIG}_A(\ldots)\right\rangle\) to \(B\)

In this scenario, an initiator A attempts to establish a handshake with B. B reveals its identity to A which could pose a privacy risk in certain applications (e.g. fingerprint peers on the Internet). However, in certain scenarios, this could be beneficial to protect the identity of the initiator (e.g. user is attempting to connect to a specific service). There are other attacks which can allow users to impersonate other identities or forge identities.

If the key exchange uses static keys or keys fully determined by participant identities then an attacker can compromise this key to decrypt all future and prior communications. A method to add forward secrecy is to derive ephemeral keys for each session (e.g., FFDHE, ECDHE provide this). However, you guessed it, this can also be compromised if the key derivation process is not sufficiently random (e.g. failing to parameterise the base element in DHE, like IKE).

State Management

State management is a crucial part of an interactive process. A scheme which is secure under the presence of an eavesdropper may not be secure under multiple messages (e.g. encrypting blocks with the same AES key). Similarly, a more complex scheme may consist of a variety of handshakes and messages which, if out of order, can disrupt the state. State management can pertain to the session itself or individual messages within a session. The session state itself may include: nonces, protocol state (i.e. what messages have been previously received and what is expected), involved identities, etc. The message state may include: authentication data, conditional extensions, and message features.

Session state can be exploited by replaying messages, sending messages out of order, racing messages, responding with unexpected messages, or terminating a protocol exchange early.

# expected state transition
state_transition = {
    'send_ga': 'recv_gb',
    'recv_gb': 'send_auth_ga',
    'send_auth_ga': 'recv_auth_gb',
    'recv_auth_gb': 'done',
    # heartbeat message can be sent after auth to keep connection alive
    'heartbeat': 'done',

state = 'send_ga'
while sate != 'done':
    # send relevant message for current state
    # receive expected protocol response then transition
    response = recv_msg(...)
    state = state_transition[response.action]

If a peer responded with a heartbeat message instead of authenticating itself then the protocol implementation will skip over the authentication, allowing for “secure and authenticated” communication with the unauthenticated party.

Message state can be exploited by removing or adding optional fields of a message. A practical example is an authenticated message with authenticated optional extensionss.

# Message Format
# u8    variant
# u8    number of extensions
# ...   <extension data>
# u256  message authentication code
# ...   payload

# Extension Format
# u8    variant
# u256  message authentication code
# ...   payload

msg = recv_message(...)
# authenticate message payload and variant
computed_mac = hmac(shared_key, msg.variant + msg.payload)
assert(computed_mac == msg.hmac)

for i in range(msg.n_extensions):
    extension = msg.extensions[i]
    # authenticate extension payload and variant
    computed_mac = hmac(shared_key, extension.variant + extension.payload)
    assert(computed_mac == extension.hmac)


This message format is incredibly fragile because an attacker can modify the optional extensions because the field containing the number of extensions is not authenticated. Furhtermore, regardless of authenticating the number of extensions, an attacker can substitute or shuffle authenticated extensions because the extensions are authenticated independently. This is not a contrived example, this scenario was able to exploit NFC messages.

Opportunity Costs

The cost of implementing a le epic modern protocol can quickly exceed the benefit of using an existing protocol so keep this in mind! It is tempting to pick the exciting option of designing a new protocol but practicality should be weighed heavily. Keep it simple, stupid!

Choosing A Protocol

“Okay! If I can’t write my own protocol, what do I do?!”. The solution is to choose from an available protocol with proper security considerations, tests, and proofs. An additional bonus is that using an existing protocol allows you to use standardisation/whitepaper documents as design documentation and you can use existing implementations. If you cannot choose from an existing protocol then there are steps to securely adapt or construct a protocol.

When in doubt, choose the boring stuff like TLSv1.3 or SSHv2.

Understand Your Needs

In order to choose a suitable protocol, you need to understand what specific properties you need from a protocol:

If an existing protocol implementation does not provide all the desired features then a protocol design can be adapted or implemented yourself (e.g., X3DH, OPAQUE, SIGMA-R) It is possible to develop a secure protocol design from scratch using the Noise Protocol Framework and the NoiseSocket Protocol. The Noise suite is a method of securely generating protocols with a set of desired properties (e.g. creates an AKE between two parties, protecting the responder’s identity). All protocols constructed using Noise are guaranteed to be secure! The Noise Explorer tool can generate formal verification models for a created protocol which assures its security properties.

To show the ease of Noise, let’s create a protocol live! We want:

-> e
<- e, ee
-> s, se
<- s, es

The following pattern will derive a shared key via DH then derive a new shared key using the public keys (identities) of the peers. A passive attacker is unable to snoop on the identity of the initiator and an active attacker is unable to retrieve the identity of the responder because it must authenticate itself first. However, an attacker can forge an authentication message if they are able to complete a handshake with another identity. The forgery will not allow the attacker to encrypt messages but could be used to implicate a user for interacting with another user. This example demonstrates the ease of use of Noise protocols and some of the footguns if you use Noise without thinking!

If no existing solution exists and the protocols produced by Noise are not scratching that business logic itch then you will have to commit the ultimate sin of DIY (or argue with your manager about how this feature is impractical and a future liability). When designing a protocol, you should make heavy use of existing solutions to elements of your problem set then have formal audits into the security guarantees of the protocol. Formal verification models can create guarantees on the design of the protocol but the implementation itself will need additional auditing (regular fuzzing, manual-review, divergent fuzzing, etc).

Understand Your Choice

Even a secure and widely used protocol can have dangerous behaviours. It is imperative that you fully investigate all behavoiurs and “idiosyncracies” of the chosen protocol. For example: TLSv1.3 has a 0-RTT mode where a client can initiate a TLS handshake while providing information encrypted with the secret key of a previous session. The resumption is not fully authenticated because an attacker can replay the packet so the action must be idempotent.

// Attempt to connect to hostname with reasonable parameters.
let remote_addr = "";
let server: ServerName = "".try_into().expect("bad hostname");
let config = {
    let mut cfg = ClientConfig::builder()
    cfg.enable_early_data = true;

// Create TLS connection to cache Early Data PSK.
let mut conn = std::net::TcpStream::connect(remote_addr).unwrap();
let mut prev = ClientConnection::new(Arc::clone(&config), server.clone())?;
let mut stream = Stream::new(&mut prev, &mut conn);
stream.write(b"GET / HTTP/1.0\r\n\r\n").unwrap();
let mut buf = Vec::new(); buf).unwrap();

// Create a second connection which can use the PSK.
let mut conn = std::net::TcpStream::connect(remote_addr).unwrap();
let mut client = ClientConnection::new(Arc::clone(&config), server)?;
// Attempt to send 0-RTT payload.
if let Some(mut writer) = client.early_data() {
    writer.write(b"GET / HTTP/1.0\r\nEarly-Data: 1\r\n\r\n").unwrap();
} else {
    panic!("Server does not accept early data.")
// Retrieve response from server.
let mut stream = Stream::new(&mut client, &mut conn);
let mut _buf = vec![0; 100]; // read_to_end closes connection? buf).unwrap();

This example is safe because GET / is generally idempotent but if we had a RESTful API or the early data was an action then the early data payload could be replayed or delivered out-of-order. If you are interested, this post goes into more detail about 0-RTT footguns. To mitigate this, some applications will include an “Early Data cookie”, similar to a CSRF token where the request must have a matching value. Alternatively, Early Data can be disabled outright.

Other choices can have devastating consequences. For example: “encryptment” is a property where encryption authenticates the ciphertext and the key it was encrypted with. A scheme lacking encryptment (AESGCM, ChaCha20Poly1305) is vulnerable to Multi-Key Collision Resistance (MKCR) attacks. MKCR is most famously demonstrated in Facebook as Invisible Salamanders but has also cropped up in Threema. In summary, MKCR allows multiple authenticated ciphertexts to successfully decrypted under multiple keys. This allows users to send messages which decrypt to different users or brute-force multiple keys simultaneously against a decryption oracle.

Other protocols may have canonicalization attacks and other subtlties which can break your applications. You should read all usage guidance on your chosen protocol, this includes RFCs, NIST guidance, and occasionally research papers.

The protocol choice should have room for flexibility, regardless of current plans because you will likely need to change to a new ciphersuite for compliance reasons or in response to a vulnerability disclosure. Flexibility is a subtle art but has been explained pretty thoroughly (or furr-ily, hah!).

Closing Thoughts

If you choose to implement or adapt a protocol then you should have opinions from cryptographers and other developers to ensure the protocol is both secure and usable. Provable security takes many forms, one is a framework like ProVerif formally verifies the secrecy and authentication of the protocol. You should also be aware of existing research into breaking popular protocols (I see a lot of interactive protocols with plaintext compression which can leak plaintext).

And whatever you do, for God’s sake, don’t ever roll your own primitives.