Encrypting a set of related messages

The crypto_secretbox, crypto_box and crypto_seal APIs are designed to encrypt independent messages.

However, applications may wish to encrypt a set of messages with the following constraints:

  • If a sequence of messages is encrypted, the decryption system must ensure that the complete, unmodified sequence has been properly received. In particular, it must guarantee that messages haven’t been added, removed, duplicated, truncated or reordered.

  • If an unordered set of encrypted messages is transmitted (for example when using a protocol such as UDP), the decryption system must be able to reorder the messages.

Simply encrypting individual messages with a random nonce doesn’t respect these constraints.

For sequences of messages, libsodium 1.0.14 and beyond implement the crypto_secretstream API that satisfies the above constraints. This API is recommended to encrypt files or for secure communications over a reliable protocol with ordering guarantees, such as TCP.

On older versions of the library, and with transport protocols featuring weaker ordering and reliability guarantees, these constraints can be satisfied using AEAD (Authenticated Encryption with Additional Data) constructions.

Recommended API: crypto_aead_xchacha20poly1305_ietf_*().

Initialization vector

The same key will be used to encrypt a set of messages. This is perfectly acceptable as long as that key is combined with a unique nonce for each message.

The easiest way to achieve this is to choose a random initial nonce, and to increment it after each message:

unsigned char nonce[NPUBBYTES];

randombytes_buf(nonce, sizeof nonce);

encrypt(c1, m1, key, nonce);
sodium_increment(nonce, sizeof nonce);
encrypt(c2, m2, key, nonce);
sodium_increment(nonce, sizeof nonce);

Although the terms “nonce” and “initialization vector” are frequently used interchangeably, in this documentation, we use the term “initialization vector” to describe the first nonce used to encrypt a set of messages.

A random initialization vector ensures that even if the key is reused to encrypt a different set of messages, two messages will not be encrypted using the same nonce, which, for most constructions, is critical for security.

This assumes that the size of the nonce is big enough that the probability of a nonce reuse is negligible. With a 192-bit nonce size, the XChaCha20 and XSalsa20 ciphers fit in this category. The AES and ChaCha20 (not XChaCha20) ciphers do not fit in this category. Please refer to the “short nonces” section below for recommendations about using such ciphers, if you really have to use these.

In order for the set of messages to be decrypted, the initialization vector must be transmitted. Unlike the key, it doesn’t have to be secret, so it can be prepended to the ciphertext, before the first message.

Authentication tags

AEAD constructions encrypt messages and append an authentication tag. That authentication tag is computed using the following data:

  • The secret key

  • The nonce

  • The message, before or after encryption

  • Optionally, some additional data

During the decryption process, the authentication tag is computed using the same data, and compared with the one that was attached to the ciphertext. If the tag is large enough, a valid authentication tag for a given ciphertext cannot be computed without knowing the secret key.

If these authentication tags differ, it means that the ciphertext has been corrupted, tampered with, or created without the correct secret key. In such a situation, decryption functions return an error code, and applications must discard the invalid received data.

Note that the nonce is included in the computation of the tag. A valid tag for a given ciphertext and nonce will not verify with the same ciphertext, but a different nonce.

Additional data

As described above, the computation of an authentication tag can include additional data. This is completely optional, and most applications don’t need to include any.

For a given key, nonce and message, the authentication tag will be different if the additional data differs. The ciphertext will be the same, though. Additional data are usually non-secret data.

How additional data are used is specific to every application and protocol, but here are two sample use cases for them:

  • version identifiers: using a version identifier as additional data allows the recipient of an encrypted message to check that the expected protocol version was used. If a valid secret key is used, but the version is not the one expected by the recipient, decryption will fail.

  • timestamps: when using a datagram-based transport protocol such as UDP, a timestamp can be included in every datagram, so that the recipient can ignore datagrams that are too old or in the future. A timestamp is not secret data and doesn’t have to be encrypted. Using the timestamp as additional data allows the recipient to confirm that a timestamp that appears to be valid hasn’t been tampered with.

Ordered and unordered messages

As described above, a simple way to ensure that a sequence of received messages matches what the originator sent is to set the initial nonce to a given value, and increment it after every message.

The originator only sends the initialization vector. Individual messages do not contain a copy of the nonce used to encrypt them. They don’t have to, since the recipient can perform the same operation as the sender, namely increment the nonce after every received encrypted message, in order to decrypt the stream.

If the stream being decrypted doesn’t match the original stream, because messages have been altered, removed, added, duplicated or reordered, the authentication tag will not match the one computed by the recipient using the expected nonce. This issue will be immediately detected by the decryption function.

When using a transport protocol such as UDP, encrypted messages are not guaranteed to be received in order. Some datagrams may also be missing or duplicated. Applications must reorder them and handle retransmission.

In that situation, a copy of the nonce, or value representing the difference with the initial nonce, can be added to every encrypted message. Since a message is encrypted and authenticated using a unique nonce in addition to the key, the decryption process will immediately detect a an encrypted message whose attached nonce has been tampered with.

Shared keys and repeated nonces

As previously stated, it is important to avoid using the same nonce to encrypt different messages.

If two or more parties share the same secret key, increment the nonce after each message, but use the same initialization vector, different messages may end up being encrypted with the same nonce.

Each party can start with a different initialization vector and send it to its peers, but a better approach is to simply use different keys. Even if kAB and kBA are known by both parties, messages sent by A to B are encrypted using the secret key kAB, whereas messages sent by B to A will be encrypted using kBA.

The key exchange API (crypto_kx() functions) creates two different keys for that purpose.

Short nonces

Ciphers such as AES do not feature nonces large enough to be randomly chosen without taking the risk of repeating a nonce.

More accurately, a single nonce shouldn’t be used to encrypt different messages with the same key. Using the same nonce to encrypt different messages with different keys is perfectly safe.

Therefore, ciphers with short nonces can be safely used, but require keys to be frequently rotated, in addition to generating a new key for every stream. This requires support from application-level protocols, and can be tricky to implement.

An alternative is to use a nonce extension mechanism. A large (160 bits or more) nonce N is used by the protocol. Its initial value can be randomly chosen.

The actual encryption is done as follows:

  • Using a pseudorandom function, a subkey and a shorter nonce are derived from the key and the large nonce

  • The cipher is used with this subkey and short nonce to encrypt or decrypt a message

The following code snippet derives a 256-bit subkey and a 96-bit subnonce (these parameters can be used with AES-256) from a 256-bit key and an arbitrary long nonce:

unsigned char  out[32 + 12];
unsigned char *subkey   = out;
unsigned char *subnonce = out + 32;
crypto_generichash(out, sizeof out, nonce, sizeof nonce, key, sizeof key);

Note that the security of the cipher is reduced to the one of the hash function. This operation also implies a small performance hit, that becomes negligible as the message size increases.

Unless a cipher such as AES is a requirement, using a cipher with a longer nonce is easier and safer.


Please refer to the main page on AEAD constructions for detailed information about the limitations of each construction.

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