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Transport Layer Security (TLS) Overview

Ioto supports the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol for authenticating systems and encrypting data. Use of this protocol enables secure data transmission to and from clients in a standards-based manner. The Transport Layer Security protocol is a protocol layer which may be placed between a reliable connection-oriented network layer protocol (e.g. TCP/IP) and the application protocol layer (e.g. HTTP). TLS provides for secure communication between client and server by allowing mutual authentication, the use of digital signatures for integrity, and encryption for privacy.

This following document explains TLS. It has heavily borrowed from the Apache Documentation. Many thanks to the fine folks at Apache for this excellent base material and for Frederick Hirsch who authored quite a bit of the original material.

If you have a good understanding of TLS and now you want to configure TLS for Ioto, you may wish to skip the background and read immediately how to setup TLS for Ioto.

Cryptographic Techniques

Understanding TLS requires an understanding of cryptographic algorithms, message digest functions (aka. one-way or hash functions), and digital signatures. The following section provides a brief introduction to the cryptographic foundations of TLS. If you are already familiar with this material, please skip forward to the TLS Overview section.

Cryptographic Algorithms

Consider the example of Alice who wants to send a message to her bank to transfer some money. She would like the message to be private, since it will include information such as her account number and transfer amount. One solution is to use a cryptographic algorithm, a technique that would transform her message into an encrypted form, unreadable except by those it is intended for. Once in this form, the message may only be interpreted through the use of a secret key. Without the key, the message is useless: good cryptographic algorithms make it so difficult for intruders to decode the original text that it isn't worth their effort.

There are two categories of cryptographic algorithms: conventional and public key.

Symmetric Cryptography

Symmetric cryptography, requires the sender and receiver to share a key: a secret piece of information that may be used to encrypt or decrypt a message. If this key is secret, then nobody other than the sender or receiver may read the message. If Alice and the bank know a secret key, then they may send each other private messages. The task of privately choosing a key before communicating, however, can be problematic.

Public Key Cryptography

Public key cryptography also known as asymmetric cryptography, solves the key exchange problem by defining an algorithm which uses two keys, each of which may be used to encrypt a message. If one key is used to encrypt a message then the other may be used to decrypt it. This makes it possible to receive secure messages by simply publishing one key (the public key) and keeping the other secret (the private key).

Anyone may encrypt a message using the public key, but only the owner of the private key will be able to read it. In this way, you may send private messages to the owner of a key-pair (the bank), by encrypting it using their public key. Only the bank will be able to decrypt it.

Message Digests

Although Alice may encrypt her message to make it private, there is still a concern that someone might modify her original message or substitute it with a different one, in order to transfer the money to themselves, for instance. One way of guaranteeing the integrity of Alice's message is to create a concise summary of her message and send this to the bank as well. Upon receipt of the message, the bank creates its own summary and compares it with the one Alice sent. If they agree then the message was received intact.

A summary such as this is called a message digest, one-way function or hash function. Message digests are used to create short, fixed-length representations of longer, variable-length messages. Digest algorithms are designed to produce unique digests for different messages. Message digests are designed to make it too difficult to determine the message from the digest, and also impossible to find two different messages which create the same digest — thus eliminating the possibility of substituting one message for another while maintaining the same digest.

Another challenge that Alice faces is finding a way to send the digest to the bank securely; when this is achieved, the integrity of the associated message is assured. One way to do this is to include the digest in a digital signature.

Digital Signatures

When Alice sends a message to the bank, the bank needs to ensure that the message is really from her, so an intruder does not request a transaction involving her account. A digital signature, created by Alice and included with the message, serves this purpose.

Digital signatures are created by encrypting a digest of the message, and other information (such as a sequence number) with the sender's private key. Though anyone may decrypt the signature using the public key, only the signer knows the private key. This means that only they may have signed it. Including the digest in the signature means the signature is only good for that message; it also ensures the integrity of the message since no one can change the digest and still sign it.

To guard against interception and reuse of the signature by an intruder at a later date, the signature contains a unique sequence number. This protects the bank from a fraudulent claim from Alice that she did not send the message — only she could have signed it (non-repudiation).


Although Alice could have sent a private message to the bank, signed it, and ensured the integrity of the message, she still needs to be sure that she is really communicating with the bank. This means that she needs to be sure that the public key she is using corresponds to the bank's private key. Similarly, the bank also needs to verify that the message signature really corresponds to Alice's signature.

If each party has a certificate which validates the other's identity, confirms the public key, and is signed by a trusted agency, then they both will be assured that they are communicating with whom they think they are. Such a trusted agency is called a Certificate Authority, and certificates are used for authentication.

Certificate Contents

A certificate associates a public key with the real identity of an individual, server, or other entity, known as the subject. As shown in Table 1, information about the subject includes identifying information (the distinguished name), and the public key. It also includes the identification and signature of the Certificate Authority that issued the certificate, and the period of time during which the certificate is valid. It may have additional information (or extensions) as well as administrative information for the Certificate Authority's use, such as a serial number.

Table 1: Certificate Information

Item Description
Subject Distinguished Name, Public Key
Issuer Distinguished Name, Signature
Period of Validity Not Before Date, Not After Date
Administrative Information Version, Serial Number
Extended Information Basic Constraints, Netscape Flags, etc.

A distinguished name is used to provide an identity in a specific context — for instance, an individual might have a personal certificate as well as one for their identity as an employee. Distinguished names are defined by the X.509 standard, which defines the fields, field names, and abbreviations used to refer to the fields (see Table 2).

Table 2: Distinguished Name Information

DN Field Abbrev. Description Example
Common Name CN Name being certified CN=Joe Average
Organization or Company O Name is associated with this organization O=Snake Oil, Ltd.
Organizational Unit OU Name is associated with this organization unit, such as a department OU=Research Institute
City/Locality L Name is located in this City L=Snake City
State/Province ST Name is located in this State/Province ST=Desert
Country C Name is located in this Country (ISO code) C=XZ

A Certificate Authority may define a policy specifying which distinguished field names are optional, and which are required. It may also place requirements upon the field contents, as may users of certificates. As an example, a Netscape browser requires that the Common Name for a certificate representing a server has a name which matches a wildcard pattern for the domain name of that server, such as *

The binary format of a certificate is defined using the ASN.1 notation. This notation defines how to specify the contents, and encoding rules define how this information is translated into binary form. The binary encoding of the certificate is defined using Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER), which are based on the more general Basic Encoding Rules (BER). For those transmissions which cannot handle binary, the binary form may be translated into an ASCII form by using Base64 encoding. This encoded version is called PEM encoded (the name comes from "Privacy Enhanced Mail"), when placed between begin and end delimiter lines as illustrated in the following example.

Example of a PEM-encoded certificate (snakeoil.crt)


Certificate Authorities

By first verifying the information in a certificate request before granting the certificate, the Certificate Authority assures the identity of the private key owner of a key-pair. For instance, if Alice requests a personal certificate, the Certificate Authority must first make sure that Alice really is the person the certificate request claims.

Certificate Chains

A Certificate Authority may also issue a certificate for another Certificate Authority. When examining a certificate, Alice may need to examine the certificate of the issuer, for each parent Certificate Authority, until reaching one which she has confidence in. She may decide to trust only certificates with a limited chain of issuers, to reduce her risk of a "bad" certificate in the chain.

Creating a Root-Level CA

As noted earlier, each certificate requires an issuer to assert the validity of the identity of the certificate subject, up to the top-level Certificate Authority (CA). This presents a problem: Since this is who vouches for the certificate of the top-level authority, which has no issuer? In this unique case, the certificate is "self-signed", so the issuer of the certificate is the same as the subject. As a result, one must exercise extra care in trusting a self-signed certificate. The wide publication of a public key by the root authority reduces the risk in trusting this key — it would be obvious if someone else publicized a key claiming to be the authority. Browsers are preconfigured to trust well-known certificate authorities.

A number of companies, such as Thawte and VeriSign have established themselves as Certificate Authorities. These companies provide the following services:

  • Verifying certificate requests
  • Processing certificate requests
  • Issuing and managing certificates

It is also possible to create your own Certificate Authority. Although risky in the Internet environment, it may be useful within an Intranet where the organization can easily verify the identities of individuals and servers.

Certificate Management

Establishing a Certificate Authority is a responsibility which requires a solid administrative, technical, and management framework. Certificate Authorities not only issue certificates, they also manage them — that is, they determine how long certificates are valid, they renew them, and they keep lists of certificates that have already been issued but are no longer valid (Certificate Revocation Lists, or CRLs). Say Alice is entitled to a certificate as an employee of a company. Say too, that the certificate needs to be revoked when Alice leaves the company. Since certificates are objects that get passed around, it is impossible to tell from the certificate alone that it has been revoked. When examining certificates for validity, therefore, it is necessary to contact the issuing Certificate Authority to check CRLs — this is not usually an automated part of the process.


If you use a Certificate Authority that is not configured into browsers by default, it is necessary to load the Certificate Authority certificate into the browser, enabling the browser to validate server certificates signed by that Certificate Authority. Doing so may be dangerous, since once loaded, the browser will accept all certificates signed by that Certificate Authority.

Transport Layer Security (TLS) Overview

The Transport Layer Security protocols designed to support a range of choices for specific algorithms used for cryptography, digests, and signatures. This allows algorithm selection for specific servers to be made based on legal, export or other concerns, and also enables the protocol to take advantage of new algorithms. Choices are negotiated between client and server at the start of establishing a protocol session.

Table 4: Versions of the TLS protocol

Version Source Description TLS v2.0 Expired First TLS protocol for which implementations exists TLS v3.0 Expired Revisions to prevent specific security attacks, add non-RSA ciphers, and support for certificate chains TLS v1.0 Internet Standard TLSv1.0 is a revision of TLS 3.0 to update the MAC layer to HMAC, add block padding for block ciphers, message order standardization and more alert messages. TLS v1.1 Internet Standard TLSv1.1 adds protection against Cipher block chaining attacks. TLS v1.2 Internet Standard TLSv1.2 deprecates using MD5 as a hash and deprecates TLSv2. TLS v1.3 Internet Standard TLSv1.3 improves performance and fast connection startup.

There are a number of versions of the TLS protocol, as shown in Table 4. As noted there, one of the benefits in TLS 3.0 is that it adds support of certificate chain loading. This feature allows a server to pass a server certificate along with issuer certificates to the browser. Chain loading also permits the browser to validate the server certificate, even if Certificate Authority certificates are not installed for the intermediate issuers, since they are included in the certificate chain. TLS 3.0 is the basis for the Transport Layer Security protocol standard, currently in development by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Session Establishment

The TLS session is established by following a handshake sequence between client and server. This sequence may vary, depending on whether the server is configured to provide a server certificate or request a client certificate. Though cases exist where additional handshake steps are required for management of cipher information, this article summarizes one common scenario: see the TLS specification for the full range of possibilities.


Once an TLS session has been established it may be reused, thus avoiding the performance penalty of repeating the many steps needed to start a session. For this the server assigns each TLS session a unique session identifier which is cached in the server and which the client can use on forthcoming connections to reduce the handshake (until the session identifier expires in the cache of the server).

The elements of the handshake sequence, as used by the client and server, are listed below:

  1. Negotiate the Cipher Suite to be used during data transfer
  2. Establish and share a session key between client and server
  3. Optionally authenticate the server to the client
  4. Optionally authenticate the client to the server

The first step, Cipher Suite Negotiation, allows the client and server to choose a Cipher Suite supportable by both of them. The TLS3.0 protocol specification defines 31 Cipher Suites. A Cipher Suite is defined by the following components:

  • Key Exchange Method
  • Cipher for Data Transfer
  • Message Digest for creating the Message Authentication Code (MAC)

These three elements are described in the sections that follow.

Key Exchange Method

The key exchange method defines how the shared secret symmetric cryptography key used for application data transfer will be agreed upon by client and server. TLS 2.0 uses RSA key exchange only, while TLS 3.0 supports a choice of key exchange algorithms including the RSA key exchange when certificates are used, and Diffie-Hellman key exchange for exchanging keys without certificates and without prior communication between client and server.

One variable in the choice of key exchange methods is digital signatures — whether or not to use them, and if so, what kind of signatures to use. Signing with a private key provides assurance against a man-in-the-middle-attack during the information exchange used in generating the shared key.

Cipher for Data Transfer

TLS uses the conventional cryptography algorithm (symmetric cryptography) described earlier for encrypting messages in a session. There are nine choices, including the choice to perform no encryption:

  • No encryption
  • Stream Ciphers
  • RC4 with 40-bit keys
  • RC4 with 128-bit keys
  • CBC Block Ciphers
    • RC2 with 40 bit key
    • DES with 40 bit key
    • DES with 56 bit key
    • Triple-DES with 168 bit key
    • Idea (128 bit key)
    • Fortezza (96 bit key)

Here "CBC" refers to Cipher Block Chaining, which means that a portion of the previously encrypted cipher text is used in the encryption of the current block. "DES" refers to the Data Encryption Standard, which has a number of variants (including DES40 and 3DES_EDE). "Idea" is one of the best and cryptographically strongest available algorithms, and "RC2" is a proprietary algorithm from RSA DSI.

Digest Function The choice of digest function determines how a digest is created from a record unit. TLS supports the following: * No digest (Null choice) * MD5, a 128-bit hash (deprecated in TLS/1.2) * Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA-1), a 160-bit hash

The message digest is used to create a Message Authentication Code (MAC) which is encrypted with the message to provide integrity and to prevent against replay attacks.

Handshake Sequence Protocol

The handshake sequence uses three protocols: * The TLS Handshake Protocol for performing the client and server TLS session establishment. * The TLS Change Cipher Spec Protocol for actually establishing agreement on the Cipher Suite for the session. * The TLS Alert Protocol for conveying TLS error messages between client and server.

These protocols, as well as application protocol data, are encapsulated in the TLS Record Protocol. An encapsulated protocol is transferred as data by the lower layer protocol, which does not examine the data. The encapsulated protocol has no knowledge of the underlying protocol.

The encapsulation of TLS control protocols by the record protocol means that if an active session is renegotiated the control protocols will be transmitted securely. If there were no session before, then the Null cipher suite is used, which means there is no encryption and messages have no integrity digests until the session has been established.

Data Transfer

The TLS Record Protocol is used to transfer application and TLS Control data between the client and server, possibly fragmenting this data into smaller units, or combining multiple higher level protocol data messages into single units. It may compress, attach digest signatures, and encrypt these units before transmitting them using the underlying reliable transport protocol (Note: currently all major TLS implementations lack support for compression).

Securing HTTP Communication

One common use of TLS is to secure Web HTTP communication between a browser and a web server. This case does not preclude the use of non-secured HTTP. The secure version is mainly plain HTTP over TLS (named HTTPS), but with one major difference: it uses the URL scheme https rather than http and a different server port (by default 443).