I am extremely pleased to announce the public release of pwnedkeys.com – a database of compromised asymmetric encryption keys. I hope this will become the go-to resource for anyone interested in avoiding the re-use of known-insecure keys. If you have a need, or a desire, to check whether a key you’re using, or being asked to accept, is potentially in the hands of an adversary, I would encourage you to take a look.
By now, most people in the IT industry are aware of the potential weaknesses of passwords, especially short or re-used passwords. Using a password which is too short (or, more technically, with “insufficient entropy”) leaves us open to brute force attacks, while re-using the same password on multiple sites invites a credential stuffing attack.
It is rare, however, that anyone thinks about the “quality” of RSA or ECC keys that we use with the same degree of caution. There are so many possible keys, all of which are “high quality” (and thus not subject to “brute force”), that we don’t imagine that anyone could ever compromise a private key except by actually taking a copy of it off our hard drives.
There is a unique risk with the use of asymmetric cryptography, though. Every time you want someone to encrypt something to you, or verify a signature you’ve created, you need to tell them your public key. While someone can’t calculate your private key from your public key, the public key does have enough information in it to be able to identify your private key, if someone ever comes across it.
The risk here is that, in many cases, a public key truly is public. Every time your browser connects to a HTTPS-protected website, the web server sends a copy of the site’s public key (embedded in the SSL certificate). Similarly, when you connect to an SSH server, you get the server’s public key as part of the connection process. Some services provide a way for anyone to query a user’s public keys.
Once someone has your public key, it can act like an “index” into a database of private keys that they might already have. This is only a problem, of course, if someone happens to have your private key in their stash. The bad news is that there are a lot of private keys already out there, that have either been compromised by various means (accident or malice), or perhaps generated by a weak RNG.
When you’re generating keys, you usually don’t have to worry. The chances of accidentally generating a key that someone else already has is as close to zero as makes no difference. Where you need to be worried is when you’re accepting public keys from other people. Unlike a “weak” password, you can’t tell a known-compromised key just by looking at it. Even if you saw the private key, it would look just as secure as any other key. You cannot know whether a public key you’re being asked to accept is associated with a known-compromised private key. Or you couldn’t, until pwnedkeys.com came along.
The purpose of pwnedkeys.com is to try and collect every private key that’s ever gotten “out there” into the public, and warn people off using them ever again. Don’t think that people don’t re-use these compromised keys, either. One of the “Debian weak keys” was used in an SSL certificate that was issued in 2016, some eight years after the vulnerability was made public!
My hope is that pwnedkeys.com will come to be seen as a worthwhile resource for anyone who accepts public keys, and wants to know that they’re not signing themselves up for a security breach in the future.