Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman

So far in this series we’ve seen elliptic curves from many perspectives, including the elementary, algebraic, and programmatic ones. We implemented finite field arithmetic and connected it to our elliptic curve code. So we’re in a perfect position to feast on the main course: how do we use elliptic curves to actually do cryptography?

History

As the reader has heard countless times in this series, an elliptic curve is a geometric object whose points have a surprising and well-defined notion of addition. That you can add some points on some elliptic curves was a well-known technique since antiquity, discovered by Diophantus. It was not until the mid 19th century that the general question of whether addition always makes sense was answered by Karl Weierstrass. In 1908 Henri Poincaré asked about how one might go about classifying the structure of elliptic curves, and it was not until 1922 that Louis Mordell proved the fundamental theorem of elliptic curves, classifying their algebraic structure for most important fields.

While mathematicians have always been interested in elliptic curves (there is currently a million dollar prize out for a solution to one problem about them), its use in cryptography was not suggested until 1985. Two prominent researchers independently proposed it: Neal Koblitz at the University of Washington, and Victor Miller who was at IBM Research at the time. Their proposal was solid from the start, but elliptic curves didn’t gain traction in practice until around 2005. More recently, the NSA was revealed to have planted vulnerable national standards for elliptic curve cryptography so they could have backdoor access. You can see a proof and implementation of the backdoor at Aris Adamantiadis’s blog. For now we’ll focus on the cryptographic protocols themselves.

The Discrete Logarithm Problem

Koblitz and Miller had insights aplenty, but the central observation in all of this is the following.

Adding is easy on elliptic curves, but undoing addition seems hard.

What I mean by this is usually called the discrete logarithm problem. Here’s a formal definition. Recall that an additive group is just a set of things that have a well-defined addition operation, and the that notation ny means y + y + \dots + y (n times).

Definition: Let G be an additive group, and let x, y be elements of G so that x = ny for some integer n. The discrete logarithm problem asks one to find n when given x and y.

I like to give super formal definitions first, so let’s do a comparison. For integers this problem is very easy. If you give me 12 and 4185072, I can take a few seconds and compute that 4185072 = (348756) 12 using the elementary-school division algorithm (in the above notation, y=12, x=4185072, and n = 348756). The division algorithm for integers is efficient, and so it gives us a nice solution to the discrete logarithm problem for the additive group of integers \mathbb{Z}.

The reason we use the word “logarithm” is because if your group operation is multiplication instead of addition, you’re tasked with solving the equation x = y^n for n. With real numbers you’d take a logarithm of both sides, hence the name. Just in case you were wondering, we can also solve the multiplicative logarithm problem efficiently for rational numbers (and hence for integers) using the square-and-multiply algorithm. Just square y until doing so would make you bigger than x, then multiply by y until you hit x.

But integers are way nicer than they need to be. They are selflessly well-ordered. They give us division for free. It’s a computational charity! What happens when we move to settings where we don’t have a division algorithm? In mathematical lingo: we’re really interested in the case when G is just a group, and doesn’t have additional structure. The less structure we have, the harder it should be to solve problems like the discrete logarithm. Elliptic curves are an excellent example of such a group. There is no sensible ordering for points on an elliptic curve, and we don’t know how to do division efficiently. The best we can do is add y to itself over and over until we hit x, and it could easily happen that n (as a number) is exponentially larger than the number of bits in x and y.

What we really want is a polynomial time algorithm for solving discrete logarithms. Since we can take multiples of a point very fast using the double-and-add algorithm from our previous post, if there is no polynomial time algorithm for the discrete logarithm problem then “taking multiples” fills the role of a theoretical one-way function, and as we’ll see this opens the door for secure communication.

Here’s the formal statement of the discrete logarithm problem for elliptic curves.

Problem: Let E be an elliptic curve over a finite field k. Let P, Q be points on E such that P = nQ for some integer n. Let |P| denote the number of bits needed to describe the point P. We wish to find an algorithm which determines n and has runtime polynomial in |P| + |Q|. If we want to allow randomness, we can require the algorithm to find the correct n with probability at least 2/3.

So this problem seems hard. And when mathematicians and computer scientists try to solve a problem for many years and they can’t, the cryptographers get excited. They start to wonder: under the assumption that the problem has no efficient solution, can we use that as the foundation for a secure communication protocol?

The Diffie-Hellman Protocol and Problem

Let’s spend the rest of this post on the simplest example of a cryptographic protocol based on elliptic curves: the Diffie-Hellman key exchange.

A lot of cryptographic techniques are based on two individuals sharing a secret string, and using that string as the key to encrypt and decrypt their messages. In fact, if you have enough secret shared information, and you only use it once, you can have provably unbreakable encryption! We’ll cover this idea in a future series on the theory of cryptography (it’s called a one-time pad, and it’s not all that complicated). All we need now is motivation to get a shared secret.

Because what if your two individuals have never met before and they want to generate such a shared secret? Worse, what if their only method of communication is being monitored by nefarious foes? Can they possibly exchange public information and use it to construct a shared piece of secret information? Miraculously, the answer is yes, and one way to do it is with the Diffie-Hellman protocol. Rather than explain it abstractly let’s just jump right in and implement it with elliptic curves.

As hinted by the discrete logarithm problem, we only really have one tool here: taking multiples of a point. So say we’ve chosen a curve C and a point on that curve Q. Then we can take some secret integer n, and publish Q and nQ for the world to see. If the discrete logarithm problem is truly hard, then we can rest assured that nobody will be able to discover n.

How can we use this to established a shared secret? This is where Diffie-Hellman comes in. Take our two would-be communicators, Alice and Bob. Alice and Bob each pick a binary string called a secret key, which in interpreted as a number in this protocol. Let’s call Alice’s secret key s_A and Bob’s s_B, and note that they don’t have to be the same. As the name “secret key” suggests, the secret keys are held secret. Moreover, we’ll assume that everything else in this protocol, including all data sent between the two parties, is public.

So Alice and Bob agree ahead of time on a public elliptic curve C and a public point Q on C. We’ll sometimes call this point the base point for the protocol.

Bob can cunningly do the following trick: take his secret key s_B and send s_B Q to Alice. Equally slick Alice computes s_A Q and sends that to Bob. Now Alice, having s_B Q , computes s_A s_B Q. And Bob, since he has s_A Q, can compute s_B s_A Q. But since addition is commutative in elliptic curve groups, we know s_A s_B Q = s_B s_A Q. The secret piece of shared information can be anything derived from this new point, for example its x-coordinate.

If we want to talk about security, we have to describe what is public and what the attacker is trying to determine. In this case the public information consists of the points Q, s_AQ, s_BQ. What is the attacker trying to figure out? Well she really wants to eavesdrop on their subsequent conversation, that is, the stuff that encrypt with their new shared secret s_As_BQ. So the attacker wants find out s_As_BQ. And we’ll call this the Diffie-Hellman problem.

Diffie-Hellman Problem: Suppose you fix an elliptic curve E over a finite field k, and you’re given four points Q, aQ, bQ and P for some unknown integers a, b. Determine if P = abQ in polynomial time (in the lengths of Q, aQ, bQ, P).

On one hand, if we had an efficient solution to the discrete logarithm problem, we could easily use that to solve the Diffie-Hellman problem because we could compute a,b and them quickly compute abQ and check if it’s P. In other words discrete log is at least as hard as this problem. On the other hand nobody knows if you can do this without solving the discrete logarithm problem. Moreover, we’re making this problem as easy as we reasonably can because we don’t require you to be able to compute abQ. Even if some prankster gave you a candidate for abQ, all you have to do is check if it’s correct. One could imagine some test that rules out all fakes but still doesn’t allow us to compute the true point, which would be one way to solve this problem without being able to solve discrete log.

So this is our hardness assumption: assuming this problem has no efficient solution then no attacker, even with really lucky guesses, can feasibly determine Alice and Bob’s shared secret.

Python Implementation

The Diffie-Hellman protocol is just as easy to implement as you would expect. Here’s some Python code that does the trick. Note that all the code produced in the making of this post is available on this blog’s Github page.

def sendDH(privateKey, generator, sendFunction):
   return sendFunction(privateKey * generator)

def receiveDH(privateKey, receiveFunction):
   return privateKey * receiveFunction()

And using our code from the previous posts in this series we can run it on a small test.

import os

def generateSecretKey(numBits):
   return int.from_bytes(os.urandom(numBits // 8), byteorder='big')

if __name__ == "__main__":
   F = FiniteField(3851, 1)
   curve = EllipticCurve(a=F(324), b=F(1287))
   basePoint = Point(curve, F(920), F(303))

   aliceSecretKey = generateSecretKey(8)
   bobSecretKey = generateSecretKey(8)

   alicePublicKey = sendDH(aliceSecretKey, basePoint, lambda x:x)
   bobPublicKey = sendDH(bobSecretKey, basePoint, lambda x:x)

   sharedSecret1 = receiveDH(bobSecretKey, lambda: alicePublicKey)
   sharedSecret2 = receiveDH(aliceSecretKey, lambda: bobPublicKey)
   print('Shared secret is %s == %s' % (sharedSecret1, sharedSecret2))

Pythons os module allows us to access the operating system’s random number generator (which is supposed to be cryptographically secure) via the function urandom, which accepts as input the number of bytes you wish to generate, and produces as output a Python bytestring object that we then convert to an integer. Our simplistic (and totally insecure!) protocol uses the elliptic curve C defined by y^2 = x^3 + 324 x + 1287 over the finite field \mathbb{Z}/3851. We pick the base point Q = (920, 303), and call the relevant functions with placeholders for actual network transmission functions.

There is one issue we have to note. Say we fix our base point Q. Since an elliptic curve over a finite field can only have finitely many points (since the field only has finitely many possible pairs of numbers), it will eventually happen that nQ = 0 is the ideal point. Recall that the smallest value of n for which nQ = 0 is called the order of Q. And so when we’re generating secret keys, we have to pick them to be smaller than the order of the base point. Viewed from the other angle, we want to pick Q to have large order, so that we can pick large and difficult-to-guess secret keys. In fact, no matter what integer you use for the secret key it will be equivalent to some secret key that’s less than the order of Q. So if an attacker could guess the smaller secret key he wouldn’t need to know your larger key.

The base point we picked in the example above happens to have order 1964, so an 8-bit key is well within the bounds. A real industry-strength elliptic curve (say, Curve25519 or the curves used in the NIST standards*) is designed to avoid these problems. The order of the base point used in the Diffie-Hellman protocol for Curve25519 has gargantuan order (like 2^{256}). So 256-bit keys can easily be used. I’m brushing some important details under the rug, because the key as an actual string is derived from 256 pseudorandom bits in a highly nontrivial way.

So there we have it: a simple cryptographic protocol based on elliptic curves. While we didn’t experiment with a truly secure elliptic curve in this example, we’ll eventually extend our work to include Curve25519. But before we do that we want to explore some of the other algorithms based on elliptic curves, including random number generation and factoring.

Comments on Insecurity

Why do we use elliptic curves for this? Why not do something like RSA and do multiplication (and exponentiation) modulo some large prime?

Well, it turns out that algorithmic techniques are getting better and better at solving the discrete logarithm problem for integers mod p, leading some to claim that RSA is dead. But even if we will never find a genuinely efficient algorithm (polynomial time is good, but might not be good enough), these techniques have made it clear that the key size required to maintain high security in RSA-type protocols needs to be really big. Like 4096 bits. But for elliptic curves we can get away with 256-bit keys. The reason for this is essentially mathematical: addition on elliptic curves is not as well understood as multiplication is for integers, and the more complex structure of the group makes it seem inherently more difficult. So until some powerful general attacks are found, it seems that we can get away with higher security on elliptic curves with smaller key sizes.

I mentioned that the particular elliptic curve we chose was insecure, and this raises the natural question: what makes an elliptic curve/field/basepoint combination secure or insecure? There are a few mathematical pitfalls (including certain attacks we won’t address), but one major non-mathematical problem is called a side-channel attack. A side channel attack against a cryptographic protocol is one that gains additional information about users’ secret information by monitoring side-effects of the physical implementation of the algorithm.

The problem is that different operations, doubling a point and adding two different points, have very different algorithms. As a result, they take different amounts of time to complete and they require differing amounts of power. Both of these can be used to reveal information about the secret keys. Despite the different algorithms for arithmetic on Weierstrass normal form curves, one can still implement them to be secure. Naively, one might pad the two subroutines with additional (useless) operations so that they have more similar time/power signatures, but I imagine there are better methods available.

But much of what makes a curve’s domain parameters mathematically secure or insecure is still unknown. There are a handful of known attacks against very specific families of parameters, and so cryptography experts simply avoid these as they are discovered. Here is a short list of pitfalls, and links to overviews:

  1. Make sure the order of your basepoint has a short facorization (e.g., is 2p, 3p, or 4p for some prime p). Otherwise you risk attacks based on the Chinese Remainder Theorem, the most prominent of which is called Pohlig-Hellman.
  2. Make sure your curve is not supersingular. If it is you can reduce the discrete logarithm problem to one in a different and much simpler group.
  3. If your curve C is defined over \mathbb{Z}/p, make sure the number of points on C is not equal to p. Such a curve is called prime-field anomalous, and its discrete logarithm problem can be reduced to the (additive) version on integers.
  4. Don’t pick a small underlying field like \mathbb{F}_{2^m} for small mGeneral-purpose attacks can be sped up significantly against such fields.
  5. If you use the field \mathbb{F}_{2^m}, ensure that m is prime. Many believe that if m has small divisors, attacks based on some very complicated algebraic geometry can be used to solve the discrete logarithm problem more efficiently than any general-purpose method. This gives evidence that m being composite at all is dangerous, so we might as well make it prime.

This is a sublist of the list provided on page 28 of this white paper.

The interesting thing is that there is little about the algorithm and protocol that is vulnerable. Almost all of the vulnerabilities come from using bad curves, bad fields, or a bad basepoint. Since the known attacks work on a pretty small subset of parameters, one potentially secure technique is to just generate a random curve and a random point on that curve! But apparently all respected national agencies will refuse to call your algorithm “standards compliant” if you do this.

Next time we’ll continue implementing cryptographic protocols, including the more general public-key message sending and signing protocols.

Until then!

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Connecting Elliptic Curves with Finite Fields

So here we are. We’ve studied the general properties of elliptic curves, written a program for elliptic curve arithmetic over the rational numbers, and taken a long detour to get some familiarity with finite fields (the mathematical background and a program that implements arbitrary finite field arithmetic).

And now we want to get back on track and hook our elliptic curve program up with our finite field program to make everything work. And indeed, for most cases it’s just that simple! For example, take the point P = (2,1) on the elliptic curve y = x^3 + x + 1 with coefficients in \mathbb{Z}/5. Using purely code produced in previous posts, we can do arithmetic:

>>> F5 = FiniteField(5, 1)
>>> C = EllipticCurve(a=F5(1), b=F5(1))
>>> P = Point(C, F5(2), F5(1))
>>> P
(2 (mod 5), 1 (mod 5))
>>> 2*P
(2 (mod 5), 4 (mod 5))
>>> 3*P
Ideal

Here’s an example of the same curve y^2 = x^3 + x + 1 with coefficients over the finite field of order 25 \mathbb{F}_{5^2}.

>>> F25 = FiniteField(5,2)
>>> F25.idealGenerator
3 + 0 t^1 + 1 t^2
>>> curve = EllipticCurve(a=F25([1]), b=F25([1]))
>>> x = F25([2,1])
>>> y = F25([0,2])
>>> y*y - x*x*x - x - 1
0 ∈ F_{5^2}
>>> curve.testPoint(x,y)
True
>>> P = Point(curve, x, y)
>>> -P
(2 + 1 t^1, 0 + 3 t^1)
>>> P+P
(3 + 1 t^1, 2)
>>> 4*P
(3 + 2 t^1, 4 + 4 t^1)
>>> 9*P
Ideal

There are some subtle issues, though, in that we shouldn’t use the code we have to work over any finite field. But we’ve come very far and covered a lot of technical details, so let’s briefly remember how we got here.

Taking a Step Back

At the beginning there was only \mathbb{Q}, the field of rational numbers. We had a really nice geometric picture of elliptic curves over this field, and using that picture we developed an algorithm for (geometrically) adding points.

add-points-exampleIf we assume the equation of the elliptic curve had this nice form (the so-called Weierstrass normal form, y^2 = x^3 + ax + b), then we were able to translate the geometric algorithm into an algebraic one. This made it possible to write a program to perform the additions, and this was our first programmatic milestone. Along the way, we learned about groups and projective geometry, which I explained was the proper mathematical setting for elliptic curves. In that setting, we saw that for most fields, every elliptic curve could be modified into one in Weierstrass normal form without changing the algebraic structure of the set of solutions. Moreover, we saw that you can replace the field \mathbb{Q} with the field of your choice. The set of solutions to an elliptic curve still forms a group and the same algebraic point-adding algorithm works. It’s just an interesting quirk of mathematics that one way to represent elements of finite fields are as polynomial remainders when dividing by a “prime” polynomial (analogous to modular arithmetic with integers). So we spent a while actually implementing finite fields in terms of this representation.

The reader has probably heard of this, but in practice one uses a (very large) finite field for the coefficients of their elliptic curve. Often this is \mathbb{Z}/p for some really large prime p, or the field of 2^m elements for some large integer m. But one would naturally complain: there are so many (infinitely many!) finite fields to choose from! Which one should we use, and how did they choose these?

As with most engineering problems the answer is a trade-off, in this case between efficiency and security. Arithmetic is faster in fields of characteristic 2 (and easy to implement at the hardware level!) but a lot is known about the finite field of 2^m elements. In fact, if you are sloppy in picking m you’ll get no security at all! One prominent example is the so-called Weil descent attack, which breaks security assumptions for elliptic curve cryptography when m is not prime. These attacks use some sophisticated machinery, but this is how it goes. An abstract mathematical breakthrough can immediately invalidate cryptography based on certain elliptic curves.

But before we get neck-deep in cryptography we have an even bigger problem: for some finite fields, not every elliptic curve has a Weierstrass normal form! So our program isn’t expressive enough to represent all elliptic curves we might want to. We could avoid these curves in our applications, but that would be unnecessarily limiting. With a bit more careful work, we can devise a more general algorithm (and a different normal form) that works for all fields. But let’s understand the problem first.

In general, you can have an elliptic curve of the form \sum_{i+j=3} a_{i,j}x^iy^j = 0. That is, it’s just a really general degree 3 polynomial in two variables. If we assume the discriminant of this polynomial is nonzero, we’ll get a smooth curve. And then to get to the Weierstrass normal form involves a bunch of changes of variables. The problem is that the algebraic manipulations you do require you to multiply and divide by 2 and 3. In a field of either characteristic, these operations are either destructive (multiplying by zero) or totally illegal (dividing by zero), and they ruin Weierstrass’s day.

So what can we do?

Well it turns out that there is a more general Weierstrass normal form, unsurprisingly called the generalized Weierstrass normal form. It looks like this

\displaystyle y^2 + a_1 xy + a_3y = x^3 + a_2x^2 + a_4x + a_6

The same geometric idea of drawing lines works for this curve as well. It’s just that now the formula is way more complicated. It involves computing a bunch of helper constants and computing far more arithmetic. My colleague Daniel Ngheim was kind enough to code up the algorithm, and here it is

    def __add__(self, Q):
        if isinstance(Q, Ideal):
            return Point(self.curve, self.x, self.y)

        a1,a2,a3,a4,a6 = (self.curve.a1, self.curve.a2, self.curve.a3, self.curve.a4, self.curve.a6)

        if self.x == Q.x:
            x = self.x
            if self.y + Q.y + a1*x + a3 == 0:
                return Ideal(self.curve)
            else:
                c = ((3*x*x + 2*a2*x + a4 - a1*self.y) / (2*self.y + a1*x + a3))
                d = (-(x*x*x) + a4*x + 2*a6 - a3*self.y) / (2*self.y + a1*x + a3)
                Sum_x = c*c + a1*c - a2 - 2*self.x
                Sum_y = -(c + a1) * Sum_x - d - a3
                return Point(self.curve, Sum_x, Sum_y)
        else:
            c =  (Q.y - self.y) / (Q.x - self.x)
            d =  (self.y*Q.x - Q.y*self.x) / (Q.x - self.x)
            Sum_x = c*c + a1*c - a2 - self.x - Q.x
            Sum_y = -(c + a1)*Sum_x - d - a3
            return Point(self.curve, Sum_x, Sum_y)

   def __neg__(self):
      return Point(self.curve, self.x, -self.y - self.curve.a1*self.x - self.curve.a3)

I trust that the devoted reader could derive this algorithm by hand, but for a more detailed derivation see the book of Silverman (it’s a graduate level text, but the point is that if you’re not really serious about implementing elliptic curve cryptography then you shouldn’t worry about this more general algorithm).

One might start to wonder: are there still other forms of elliptic curves that we could use to get around some of the difficulties of the Weierstrass normal form? The answer is yes, but we’ll defer their discussion to a future post. The brief explanation is that through a different choice of variable changes you can get to a different form of curve, and the algorithms you get from writing out the algebraic equations for adding points are slightly more efficient.

For the remainder of this series we’ll just work with one family of finite fields, those fields of the form \mathbb{Z}/p for some large p. There is one particularly famous elliptic curve over this field that is used in some of the most secure applications in existence, and this will roughly be our target. In either case, we have provided the combined elliptic curve and finite field code (and the generalized elliptic curve class) on this blog’s Github page.

So in the next post we’ll actually start talking about cryptography and how to use elliptic curves to do things like generate a shared secret key.

Until then!

(Finite) Fields — A Primer

So far on this blog we’ve given some introductory notes on a few kinds of algebraic structures in mathematics (most notably groups and rings, but also monoids). Fields are the next natural step in the progression.

If the reader is comfortable with rings, then a field is extremely simple to describe: they’re just commutative rings with 0 and 1, where every nonzero element has a multiplicative inverse. We’ll give a list of all of the properties that go into this “simple” definition in a moment, but an even more simple way to describe a field is as a place where “arithmetic makes sense.” That is, you get operations for +,-, \cdot , / which satisfy the expected properties of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. So whatever the objects in your field are (and sometimes they are quite weird objects), they behave like usual numbers in a very concrete sense.

So here’s the official definition of a field. We call a set F a field if it is endowed with two binary operations addition (+) and multiplication (\cdot, or just symbol juxtaposition) that have the following properties:

  • There is an element we call 0 which is the identity for addition.
  • Addition is commutative and associative.
  • Every element a \in F has a corresponding additive inverse b (which may equal a) for which a + b = 0.

These three properties are just the axioms of a (commutative) group, so we continue:

  • There is an element we call 1 (distinct from 0) which is the identity for multiplication.
  • Multiplication is commutative and associative.
  • Every nonzero element a \in F has a corresponding multiplicative inverse b (which may equal a) for which ab = 1.
  • Addition and multiplication distribute across each other as we expect.

If we exclude the existence of multiplicative inverses, these properties make F a commutative ring, and so we have the following chain of inclusions that describes it all

\displaystyle \textup{Fields} \subset \textup{Commutative Rings} \subset \textup{Rings} \subset \textup{Commutative Groups} \subset \textup{Groups}

The standard examples of fields are the real numbers \mathbb{R}, the rationals \mathbb{Q}, and the complex numbers \mathbb{C}. But of course there are many many more. The first natural question to ask about fields is: what can they look like?

For example, can there be any finite fields? A field F which as a set has only finitely many elements?

As we saw in our studies of groups and rings, the answer is yes! The simplest example is the set of integers modulo some prime p. We call them \mathbb{Z} / p \mathbb{Z}, or sometimes just \mathbb{Z}/p for short, and let’s rederive what we know about them now.

As a set, \mathbb{Z}/p consists of the integers \left \{ 0, 1, \dots, p-1 \right \}. The addition and multiplication operations are easy to define, they’re just usual addition and multiplication followed by a modulus. That is, we add by a + b \mod p and multiply with ab \mod p. This thing is clearly a commutative ring (because the integers form a commutative ring), so to show this is a field we need to show that everything has a multiplicative inverse.

There is a nice fact that allows us to do this: an element a has an inverse if and only if the only way for it to divide zero is the trivial way 0a = 0. Here’s a proof. For one direction, suppose a divides zero nontrivially, that is there is some c \neq 0 with ac = 0. Then if a had an inverse b, then 0 = b(ac) = (ba)c = c, but that’s very embarrassing for c because it claimed to be nonzero. Now suppose a only divides zero in the trivial way. Then look at all possible ways to multiply a by other nonzero elements of F. No two can give you the same result because if ax = ay then (without using multiplicative inverses) a(x-y) = 0, but we know that a can only divide zero in the trivial way so x=y. In other words, the map “multiplication by a” is injective. Because the set of nonzero elements of F is finite you have to hit everything (the map is in fact a bijection), and some x will give you ax = 1.

Now let’s use this fact on \mathbb{Z}/p in the obvious way. Since p is a prime, there are no two smaller numbers a, b < p so that ab = p. But in \mathbb{Z}/p the number p is equivalent to zero (mod p)! So \mathbb{Z}/p has no nontrivial zero divisors, and so every element has an inverse, and so it’s a finite field with p elements.

The next question is obvious: can we get finite fields of other sizes? The answer turns out to be yes, but you can’t get finite fields of any size. Let’s see why.

Characteristics and Vector Spaces

Say you have a finite field k (lower-case k is the standard letter for a field, so let’s forget about F). Beacuse the field is finite, if you take 1 and keep adding it to itself you’ll eventually run out of field elements. That is, n = 1 + 1 + \dots + 1 = 0 at some point. How do I know it’s zero and doesn’t keep cycling never hitting zero? Well if at two points n = m \neq 0, then n-m = 0 is a time where you hit zero, contradicting the claim.

Now we define \textup{char}(k), the characteristic of k, to be the smallest n (sums of 1 with itself) for which n = 0. If there is no such n (this can happen if k is infinite, but doesn’t always happen for infinite fields), then we say the characteristic is zero. It would probably make more sense to say the characteristic is infinite, but that’s just the way it is. Of course, for finite fields the characteristic is always positive. So what can we say about this number? We have seen lots of example where it’s prime, but is it always prime? It turns out the answer is yes!

For if ab = n = \textup{char}(k) is composite, then by the minimality of n we get a,b \neq 0, but ab = n = 0. This can’t happen by our above observation, because being a zero divisor means you have no inverse! Contradiction, sucker.

But it might happen that there are elements of k that can’t be written as 1 + 1 + \dots + 1 for any number of terms. We’ll construct examples in a minute (in fact, we’ll classify all finite fields), but we already have a lot of information about what those fields might look like. Indeed, since every field has 1 in it, we just showed that every finite field contains a smaller field (a subfield) of all the ways to add 1 to itself. Since the characteristic is prime, the subfield is a copy of \mathbb{Z}/p for p = \textup{char}(k). We call this special subfield the prime subfield of k.

The relationship between the possible other elements of k and the prime subfield is very neat. Because think about it: if k is your field and F is your prime subfield, then the elements of k can interact with F just like any other field elements. But if we separate k from F (make a separate copy of F), and just think of k as having addition, then the relationship with F is that of a vector space! In fact, whenever you have two fields k \subset k', the latter has the structure of a vector space over the former.

Back to finite fields, k is a vector space over its prime subfield, and now we can impose all the power and might of linear algebra against it. What’s it’s dimension? Finite because k is a finite set! Call the dimension m, then we get a basis v_1, \dots, v_m. Then the crucial part: every element of k has a unique representation in terms of the basis. So they are expanded in the form

\displaystyle f_1v_1 + \dots + f_mv_m

where the f_i come from F. But now, since these are all just field operations, every possible choice for the f_i has to give you a different field element. And how many choices are there for the f_i? Each one has exactly |F| = \textup{char}(k) = p. And so by counting we get that k has p^m many elements.

This is getting exciting quickly, but we have to pace ourselves! This is a constraint on the possible size of a finite field, but can we realize it for all choices of p, m? The answer is again yes, and in the next section we’ll see how.  But reader be warned: the formal way to do it requires a little bit of familiarity with ideals in rings to understand the construction. I’ll try to avoid too much technical stuff, but if you don’t know what an ideal is, you should expect to get lost (it’s okay, that’s the nature of learning new math!).

Constructing All Finite Fields

Let’s describe a construction. Take a finite field k of characteristic p, and say you want to make a field of size p^m. What we need to do is construct a field extension, that is, find a bigger field containing k so that the vector space dimension of our new field over k is exactly m.

What you can do is first form the ring of polynomials with coefficients in k. This ring is usually denoted k[x], and it’s easy to check it’s a ring (polynomial addition and multiplication are defined in the usual way). Now if I were speaking to a mathematician I would say, “From here you take an irreducible monic polynomial p(x) of degree m, and quotient your ring by the principal ideal generated by p. The result is the field we want!”

In less compact terms, the idea is exactly the same as modular arithmetic on integers. Instead of doing arithmetic with integers modulo some prime (an irreducible integer), we’re doing arithmetic with polynomials modulo some irreducible polynomial p(x). Now you see the reason I used p for a polynomial, to highlight the parallel thought process. What I mean by “modulo a polynomial” is that you divide some element f in your ring by p as much as you can, until the degree of the remainder is smaller than the degree of p(x), and that’s the element of your quotient. The Euclidean algorithm guarantees that we can do this no matter what k is (in the formal parlance, k[x] is called a Euclidean domain for this very reason). In still other words, the “quotient structure” tells us that two polynomials f, g \in k[x] are considered to be the same in k[x] / p if and only if f - g is divisible by p. This is actually the same definition for \mathbb{Z}/p, with polynomials replacing numbers, and if you haven’t already you can start to imagine why people decided to study rings in general.

Let’s do a specific example to see what’s going on. Say we’re working with k = \mathbb{Z}/3 and we want to compute a field of size 27 = 3^3. First we need to find a monic irreducible polynomial of degree 3. For now, I just happen to know one: p(x) = x^3 - x + 1. In fact, we can check it’s irreducible, because to be reducible it would have to have a linear factor and hence a root in \mathbb{Z}/3. But it’s easy to see that if you compute p(0), p(1), p(2) and take (mod 3) you never get zero.

So I’m calling this new ring

\displaystyle \frac{\mathbb{Z}/3[x]}{(x^3 - x + 1)}

It happens to be a field, and we can argue it with a whole lot of ring theory. First, we know an irreducible element of this ring is also prime (because the ring is a unique factorization domain), and prime elements generate maximal ideals (because it’s a principal ideal domain), and if you quotient by a maximal ideal you get a field (true of all rings).

But if we want to avoid that kind of argument and just focus on this ring, we can explicitly construct inverses. Say you have a polynomial f(x), and for illustration purposes we’ll choose f(x) = x^4 + x^2 - 1. Now in the quotient ring we could do polynomial long division to find remainders, but another trick is just to notice that the quotient is equivalent to the condition that x^3 = x - 1. So we can reduce f(x) by applying this rule to x^4 = x^3 x to get

\displaystyle f(x) = x^2 + x(x-1) - 1 = 2x^2 - x - 1

Now what’s the inverse of f(x)? Well we need a polynomial g(x) = ax^2 + bx + c whose product with f gives us something which is equivalent to 1, after you reduce by x^3 - x + 1. A few minutes of algebra later and you’ll discover that this is equivalent to the following polynomial being identically 1

\displaystyle (a-b+2c)x^2 + (-3a+b-c)x + (a - 2b - 2c) = 1

In other words, we get a system of linear equations which we need to solve:

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} a & - & b & + & 2c & = 0 \\ -3a & + & b & - & c &= 0 \\ a & - & 2b & - & 2c &= 1 \end{aligned}

And from here you can solve with your favorite linear algebra techniques. This is a good exercise for working in fields, because you get to abuse the prime subfield being characteristic 3 to say terrifying things like -1 = 2 and 6b = 0. The end result is that the inverse polynomial is 2x^2 + x + 1, and if you were really determined you could write a program to compute these linear systems for any input polynomial and ensure they’re all solvable. We prefer the ring theoretic proof.

In any case, it’s clear that taking a polynomial ring like this and quotienting by a monic irreducible polynomial gives you a field. We just control the size of that field by choosing the degree of the irreducible polynomial to our satisfaction. And that’s how we get all finite fields!

One Last Word on Irreducible Polynomials

One thing we’ve avoided is the question of why irreducible monic polynomials exist of all possible degrees m over any \mathbb{Z}/p (and as a consequence we can actually construct finite fields of all possible sizes).

The answer requires a bit of group theory to prove this, but it turns out that the polynomial x^{p^m} - x has all degree m monic irreducible polynomials as factors. But perhaps a better question (for computer scientists) is how do we work over a finite field in practice? One way is to work with polynomial arithmetic as we described above, but this has some downsides: it requires us to compute these irreducible monic polynomials (which doesn’t sound so hard, maybe), to do polynomial long division every time we add, subtract, or multiply, and to compute inverses by solving a linear system.

But we can do better for some special finite fields, say where the characteristic is 2 (smells like binary) or we’re only looking at F_{p^2}. The benefit there is that we aren’t forced to use polynomials. We can come up with some other kind of structure (say, matrices of a special form) which happens to have the same field structure and makes computing operations relatively painless. We’ll see how this is done in the future, and see it applied to cryptography when we continue with our series on elliptic curve cryptography.

Until then!

Elliptic Curves as Python Objects

Last time we saw a geometric version of the algorithm to add points on elliptic curves. We went quite deep into the formal setting for it (projective space \mathbb{P}^2), and we spent a lot of time talking about the right way to define the “zero” object in our elliptic curve so that our issues with vertical lines would disappear.

With that understanding in mind we now finally turn to code, and write classes for curves and points and implement the addition algorithm. As usual, all of the code we wrote in this post is available on this blog’s Github page.

Points and Curves

Every introductory programming student has probably written the following program in some language for a class representing a point.

class Point(object):
    def __init__(self, x, y):
        self.x = x
        self.y = y

It’s the simplest possible nontrivial class: an x and y value initialized by a constructor (and in Python all member variables are public).

We want this class to represent a point on an elliptic curve, and overload the addition and negation operators so that we can do stuff like this:

p1 = Point(3,7)
p2 = Point(4,4)
p3 = p1 + p2

But as we’ve spent quite a while discussing, the addition operators depend on the features of the elliptic curve they’re on (we have to draw lines and intersect it with the curve). There are a few ways we could make this happen, but in order to make the code that uses these classes as simple as possible, we’ll have each point contain a reference to the curve they come from. So we need a curve class.

It’s pretty simple, actually, since the class is just a placeholder for the coefficients of the defining equation. We assume the equation is already in the Weierstrass normal form, but if it weren’t one could perform a whole bunch of algebra to get it in that form (and you can see how convoluted the process is in this short report or page 115 (pdf p. 21) of this book). To be safe, we’ll add a few extra checks to make sure the curve is smooth.

class EllipticCurve(object):
   def __init__(self, a, b):
      # assume we're already in the Weierstrass form
      self.a = a
      self.b = b

      self.discriminant = -16 * (4 * a*a*a + 27 * b * b)
      if not self.isSmooth():
         raise Exception("The curve %s is not smooth!" % self)

   def isSmooth(self):
      return self.discriminant != 0

   def testPoint(self, x, y):
      return y*y == x*x*x + self.a * x + self.b

   def __str__(self):
      return 'y^2 = x^3 + %Gx + %G' % (self.a, self.b)

   def __eq__(self, other):
      return (self.a, self.b) == (other.a, other.b)

And here’s some examples of creating curves

>>> EllipticCurve(a=17, b=1)
y^2 = x^3 + 17x + 1
>>> EllipticCurve(a=0, b=0)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  [...]
Exception: The curve y^2 = x^3 + 0x + 0 is not smooth!

So there we have it. Now when we construct a Point, we add the curve as the extra argument and a safety-check to make sure the point being constructed is on the given elliptic curve.

class Point(object):
   def __init__(self, curve, x, y):
      self.curve = curve # the curve containing this point
      self.x = x
      self.y = y

      if not curve.testPoint(x,y):
         raise Exception("The point %s is not on the given curve %s" % (self, curve))

Note that this last check will serve as a coarse unit test for all of our examples. If we mess up then more likely than not the “added” point won’t be on the curve at all. More precise testing is required to be bullet-proof, of course, but we leave explicit tests to the reader as an excuse to get their hands wet with equations.

Some examples:

>>> c = EllipticCurve(a=1,b=2)
>>> Point(c, 1, 2)
(1, 2)
>>> Point(c, 1, 1)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  [...]
Exception: The point (1, 1) is not on the given curve y^2 = x^3 + 1x + 2

Before we go ahead and implement addition and the related functions, we need to be decide how we want to represent the ideal point [0 : 1 : 0]. We have two options. The first is to do everything in projective coordinates and define a whole system for doing projective algebra. Considering we only have one point to worry about, this seems like overkill (but could be fun). The second option, and the one we’ll choose, is to have a special subclass of Point that represents the ideal point.

class Ideal(Point):
   def __init__(self, curve):
      self.curve = curve

   def __str__(self):
      return "Ideal"

Note the inheritance is denoted by the parenthetical (Point) in the first line. Each function we define on a Point will require a 1-2 line overriding function in this subclass, so we will only need a small amount of extra bookkeeping. For example, negation is quite easy.

class Point(object):
   ...
   def __neg__(self):
      return Point(self.curve, self.x, -self.y)

class Ideal(Point):
   ...
   def __neg__(self):
      return self

Note that Python allows one to override the prefix-minus operation by defining __neg__ on a custom object. There are similar functions for addition (__add__), subtraction, and pretty much every built-in python operation. And of course addition is where things get more interesting. For the ideal point it’s trivial.

class Ideal(Point):
   ...
   def __add__(self, Q):
      return Q

Why does this make sense? Because (as we’ve said last time) the ideal point is the additive identity in the group structure of the curve. So by all of our analysis, P + 0 = 0 + P = P, and the code is satisfyingly short.

For distinct points we have to follow the algorithm we used last time. Remember that the trick was to form the line L(x) passing through the two points being added, substitute that line for y in the elliptic curve, and then figure out the coefficient of x^2 in the resulting polynomial. Then, using the two existing points, we could solve for the third root of the polynomial using Vieta’s formula.

In order to do that, we need to analytically solve for the coefficient of the x^2 term of the equation L(x)^2 = x^3 + ax + b. It’s tedious, but straightforward. First, write

\displaystyle L(x) = \left ( \frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right ) (x - x_1) + y_1

The first step of expanding L(x)^2 gives us

\displaystyle L(x)^2 = y_1^2 + 2y_1 \left ( \frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right ) (x - x_1) + \left [ \left (\frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right ) (x - x_1) \right ]^2

And we notice that the only term containing an x^2 part is the last one. Expanding that gives us

\displaystyle \left ( \frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right )^2 (x^2 - 2xx_1 + x_1^2)

And again we can discard the parts that don’t involve x^2. In other words, if we were to rewrite L(x)^2 = x^3 + ax + b as 0 = x^3 - L(x)^2 + ax + b, we’d expand all the terms and get something that looks like

\displaystyle 0 = x^3 - \left ( \frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right )^2 x^2 + C_1x + C_2

where C_1, C_2 are some constants that we don’t need. Now using Vieta’s formula and calling x_3 the third root we seek, we know that

\displaystyle x_1 + x_2 + x_3 = \left ( \frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right )^2

Which means that x_3 = \left ( \frac{y_2 - y_1}{x_2 - x_1} \right )^2 - x_2 - x_1. Once we have x_3, we can get y_3 from the equation of the line y_3 = L(x_3).

Note that this only works if the two points we’re trying to add are different! The other two cases were if the points were the same or lying on a vertical line. These gotchas will manifest themselves as conditional branches of our add function.

class Point(object):
   ...
   def __add__(self, Q):
      if isinstance(Q, Ideal):
         return self

      x_1, y_1, x_2, y_2 = self.x, self.y, Q.x, Q.y

      if (x_1, y_1) == (x_2, y_2):
         # use the tangent method
         ...
      else:
         if x_1 == x_2:
            return Ideal(self.curve) # vertical line

         # Using Vieta's formula for the sum of the roots
         m = (y_2 - y_1) / (x_2 - x_1)
         x_3 = m*m - x_2 - x_1
         y_3 = m*(x_3 - x_1) + y_1

         return Point(self.curve, x_3, -y_3)

First, we check if the two points are the same, in which case we use the tangent method (which we do next). Supposing the points are different, if their x values are the same then the line is vertical and the third point is the ideal point. Otherwise, we use the formula we defined above. Note the subtle and crucial minus sign at the end! The point (x_3, y_3) is the third point of intersection, but we still have to do the reflection to get the sum of the two points.

Now for the case when the points P, Q are actually the same. We’ll call it P = (x_1, y_1), and we’re trying to find 2P = P+P. As per our algorithm, we compute the tangent line J(x) at P. In order to do this we need just a tiny bit of calculus. To find the slope of the tangent line we implicitly differentiate the equation y^2 = x^3 + ax + b and get

\displaystyle \frac{dy}{dx} = \frac{3x^2 + a}{2y}

The only time we’d get a vertical line is when the denominator is zero (you can verify this by taking limits if you wish), and so y=0 implies that P+P = 0 and we’re done. The fact that this can ever happen for a nonzero P should be surprising to any reader unfamiliar with groups! But without delving into a deep conversation about the different kinds of group structures out there, we’ll have to settle for such nice surprises.

In the other case y \neq 0, we plug in our x,y values into the derivative and read off the slope m as (3x_1^2 + a)/(2y_1). Then using the same point slope formula for a line, we get J(x) = m(x-x_1) + y_1, and we can use the same technique (and the same code!) from the first case to finish.

There is only one minor wrinkle we need to smooth out: can we be sure Vieta’s formula works? In fact, the real problem is this: how do we know that x_1 is a double root of the resulting cubic? Well, this falls out again from that very abstract and powerful theorem of Bezout. There is a lot of technical algebraic geometry (and a very interesting but complicated notion of dimension) hiding behind the curtain here. But for our purposes it says that our tangent line intersects the elliptic curve with multiplicity 2, and this gives us a double root of the corresponding cubic.

And so in the addition function all we need to do is change the slope we’re using. This gives us a nice and short implementation

def __add__(self, Q):
      if isinstance(Q, Ideal):
         return self

      x_1, y_1, x_2, y_2 = self.x, self.y, Q.x, Q.y

      if (x_1, y_1) == (x_2, y_2):
         if y_1 == 0:
            return Ideal(self.curve)

         # slope of the tangent line
         m = (3 * x_1 * x_1 + self.curve.a) / (2 * y_1)
      else:
         if x_1 == x_2:
            return Ideal(self.curve)

         # slope of the secant line
         m = (y_2 - y_1) / (x_2 - x_1)

      x_3 = m*m - x_2 - x_1
      y_3 = m*(x_3 - x_1) + y_1

      return Point(self.curve, x_3, -y_3)

What’s interesting is how little the data of the curve comes into the picture. Nothing depends on b, and only one of the two cases depends on a. This is one reason the Weierstrass normal form is so useful, and it may bite us in the butt later in the few cases we don’t have it (for special number fields).

Here are some examples.

>>> C = EllipticCurve(a=-2,b=4)
>>> P = Point(C, 3, 5)
>>> Q = Point(C, -2, 0)
>>> P+Q
(0.0, -2.0)
>>> Q+P
(0.0, -2.0)
>>> Q+Q
Ideal
>>> P+P
(0.25, 1.875)
>>> P+P+P
Traceback (most recent call last):
  ...
Exception: The point (-1.958677685950413, 0.6348610067618328) is not on the given curve y^2 = x^3 + -2x + 4!

>>> x = -1.958677685950413
>>> y = 0.6348610067618328
>>> y*y - x*x*x + 2*x - 4
-3.9968028886505635e-15

And so we crash headfirst into our first floating point arithmetic issue. We’ll vanquish this monster more permanently later in this series (in fact, we’ll just scrap it entirely and define our own number system!), but for now here’s a quick fix:

>>> import fractions
>>> frac = fractions.Fraction
>>> C = EllipticCurve(a = frac(-2), b = frac(4))
>>> P = Point(C, frac(3), frac(5))
>>> P+P+P
(Fraction(-237, 121), Fraction(845, 1331))

Now that we have addition and negation, the rest of the class is just window dressing. For example, we want to be able to use the subtraction symbol, and so we need to implement __sub__

def __sub__(self, Q):
   return self + -Q

Note that because the Ideal point is a subclass of point, it inherits all of these special functions while it only needs to override __add__ and __neg__. Thank you, polymorphism! The last function we want is a scaling function, which efficiently adds a point to itself n times.

class Point(object):
   ...
   def __mul__(self, n):
      if not isinstance(n, int):
         raise Exception("Can't scale a point by something which isn't an int!")
      else:
            if n < 0:
                return -self * -n
            if n == 0:
                return Ideal(self.curve)
            else:
                Q = self
                R = self if n & 1 == 1 else Ideal(self.curve)

                i = 2
                while i <= n:
                    Q = Q + Q

                    if n & i == i:
                        R = Q + R

                    i = i << 1
   return R

   def __rmul__(self, n):
      return self * n

class Ideal(Point):
    ...
    def __mul__(self, n):
        if not isinstance(n, int):
            raise Exception("Can't scale a point by something which isn't an int!")
        else:
            return self

The scaling function allows us to quickly compute nP = P + P + \dots + P (n times). Indeed, the fact that we can do this more efficiently than performing n additions is what makes elliptic curve cryptography work. We’ll take a deeper look at this in the next post, but for now let’s just say what the algorithm is doing.

Given a number written in binary n = b_kb_{k-1}\dots b_1b_0, we can write nP as

\displaystyle b_0 P + b_1 2P + b_2 4P + \dots + b_k 2^k P

The advantage of this is that we can compute each of the P, 2P, 4P, \dots, 2^kP iteratively using only k additions by multiplying by 2 (adding something to itself) k times. Since the number of bits in n is k= \log(n), we’re getting a huge improvement over n additions.

The algorithm is given above in code, but it’s a simple bit-shifting trick. Just have i be some power of two, shifted by one at the end of every loop. Then start with Q_0 being P, and replace Q_{j+1} = Q_j + Q_j, and in typical programming fashion we drop the indices and overwrite the variable binding at each step (Q = Q+Q). Finally, we have a variable R to which Q_j is added when the j-th bit of n is a 1 (and ignored when it’s 0). The rest is bookkeeping.

Note that __mul__ only allows us to write something like P * n, but the standard notation for scaling is n * P. This is what __rmul__ allows us to do.

We could add many other helper functions, such as ones to allow us to treat points as if they were lists, checking for equality of points, comparison functions to allow one to sort a list of points in lex order, or a function to transform points into more standard types like tuples and lists. We have done a few of these that you can see if you visit the code repository, but we’ll leave flushing out the class as an exercise to the reader.

Some examples:

>>> import fractions
>>> frac = fractions.Fraction
>>> C = EllipticCurve(a = frac(-2), b = frac(4))
>>> P = Point(C, frac(3), frac(5))
>>> Q = Point(C, frac(-2), frac(0))
>>> P-Q
(Fraction(0, 1), Fraction(-2, 1))
>>> P+P+P+P+P
(Fraction(2312883, 1142761), Fraction(-3507297955, 1221611509))
>>> 5*P
(Fraction(2312883, 1142761), Fraction(-3507297955, 1221611509))
>>> Q - 3*P
(Fraction(240, 1), Fraction(3718, 1))
>>> -20*P
(Fraction(872171688955240345797378940145384578112856996417727644408306502486841054959621893457430066791656001, 520783120481946829397143140761792686044102902921369189488390484560995418035368116532220330470490000), Fraction(-27483290931268103431471546265260141280423344817266158619907625209686954671299076160289194864753864983185162878307166869927581148168092234359162702751, 11884621345605454720092065232176302286055268099954516777276277410691669963302621761108166472206145876157873100626715793555129780028801183525093000000))

As one can see, the precision gets very large very quickly. One thing we’ll do to avoid such large numbers (but hopefully not sacrifice security) is to work in finite fields, the simplest version of which is to compute modulo some prime.

So now we have a concrete understanding of the algorithm for adding points on elliptic curves, and a working Python program to do this for rational numbers or floating point numbers (if we want to deal with precision issues). Next time we’ll continue this train of thought and upgrade our program (with very little work!) to work over other simple number fields. Then we’ll delve into the cryptographic issues, and talk about how one might encode messages on a curve and use algebraic operations to encode their messages.

Until then!