david wong

Hey! I'm David, the author of the Real-World Cryptography book. Previously I was the security lead for Diem (Libra) at Facebook, and a security consultant for the Cryptography Services of NCC Group. This is my blog about cryptography and security and other related topics that I find interesting.

Authentication, What The Fuck? posted January 2020

Authentication is an overloaded word in cryptography.

In the context of cryptographic primitives like message authentication codes (MACs) and authenticated encryption with associated data (AEAD), authentication really refers to authenticity or integrity. And as the Cambridge dictionary says:

Authenticity. the quality of being real or true.
The poems are supposed to be by Sappho, but they are actually of doubtful authenticity.
The authenticity of her story is beyond doubt.

The proof is in the pudding. When talking about the security properties of primitives like MACs, cryptography talks about unforgeability, which does relate to authenticity.

So whenever you hear things like "is this payload authenticated with HMAC?", think authenticity, think integrity.

In the context of protocols though (e.g. TLS) authentication refers to identification: the concept of proving who you are.

So whenever you hear things like "Is the server authenticated?", think "identities are being proven".

This dual sense really annoys me, but in the end this ambiguity is encompassed in the definition of authentication:

the process or action of proving or showing something to be true, genuine, or valid.

Diego F. Aranha proposes a clever way to disambiguate the two:

  • origin/entity authentication. You're proving that an entity really is who they say they are.
  • message authentication. You're proving that a message is genuine.

Note that an argument against this distinction is the following: to authenticate a message, you need a key. This key comes from somewhere (it's your context, or your "who"). So when you authenticate a message, you are really authenticating the context. This falls short in scenarios where for example you trust the root hash of a merkle tree, which authenticates all of its leaves.

The bottom line is, authentication is about proving that something is what it is supposed to be. And that thing can be a person, or a message, or maybe even something else.

This is not all. In the security world people are confused with authorization vs authentication :)

(part 2 is here)

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