Life of Crypto Keys employed in Routing Protocols


Everyone knows that the cryptographic key used for securing your favorite protocol (OSPF, IS-IS, BGP TCP-AO, PIM-SM, BFD, etc)  must have a limited life time and the keys must be changed frequently. However, most people don’t understand the real reason for doing so. They argue that keys must be regularly changed since they are vulnerable to cryptanalysis attacks. Each time a crypto key is employed it generates a cipher text. In case of routing protocols the cipher text is the authentication data that is carried by the protocol packets. Its alleged that using the same key repetitively allows an attacker to build up a store of cipher texts which can prove sufficient for a successful cryptanalysis of the key value. It is also believed that if a routing protocol is transmitting packets at a high rate then the “long life” may be in order of a few hours. Thus it’s the amount of traffic that has been put on the wire using a specific key for authentication and not necessarily the duration for which the key has been in use that determines how long the key should be employed.

This was true in the Jurassic ages but not any more. The number of times a key can be used is  dependent upon the properties of the cryptographic mode than the algorithms themselves. In a cipher block chaining mode, with a b-bit block, one can safely encrypt to around 2^(b/2) blocks. AES (Advanced Encryption Standard)  used worldwide has a fixed block size of 128, which means that it can be safely used for 2^(64+4) bytes of routing data. If we assume a protocol that sends 1 Gig (!!) worth of control traffic *every* second, even then it is safe enough to be used for around 8700 *years* without changing the key! Hopefully, the system admin will remember to change the crypto key after 8700 years! 😉

So, if the data is secure then why do we really need to change the crypto keys ever?

As a general rule, where strong cryptography is employed, physical, procedural, and logical access protection considerations often have more impact on the key life than do algorithm and key size factors. People need to change the keys when an operator who had access to the keys leaves the company. Using a key chain, a set of keys derived from the same keying material and used one after the other, also does not help as one still has to change all the keys in the key chain when an operator having access to all those keys leaves the company. Additionally, key chains will not help if the routing transport subsystem does not support rolling over to the new keys without bouncing the routing sessions and adjacencies.

Another threat against a long-lived key is that one of the systems storing the key, or one of the users entrusted with the key, could be subverted. So, while there may not be cryptographic motivations of changing the keys, there could be system security motivations for rolling or changing the key.

What complicates this further is that more frequent manual key changes might actually increase the risk of exposure as it is during the time that the keys are being changed that they are likely to be disclosed! In these cases, especially when very strong cryptography is employed, it may be more prudent to have fewer, well controlled manual key distributions rather than more frequent, poorly controlled manual key distributions.

To summarize, operators need to change their crypto keys because of social and political, rather than scientific or engineering driven reasons.

You can read more about this in the IETF draft that i have co-authored here.

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About Manav Bhatia

Manav Bhatia is a SDN/NFV dataplane architect at Ionos Networks and has co-authored several IETF standards on routing protocols, BFD, IPv6, security, etc. He is also a member of IETF Routing Area Directorate where he helps the Area Directors review the IETF standards for their impact on the Routing Area. View all posts by Manav Bhatia

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