Internet-Draft Key Transparency Architecture March 2024
McMillion Expires 5 September 2024 [Page]
Key Transparency
Intended Status:
B. McMillion

Key Transparency Architecture


This document defines the terminology and interaction patterns involved in the deployment of Key Transparency (KT) in a general secure group messaging infrastructure, and specifies the security properties that the protocol provides. It also gives more general, non-prescriptive guidance on how to securely apply KT to a number of common applications.

About This Document

This note is to be removed before publishing as an RFC.

The latest revision of this draft can be found at Status information for this document may be found at

Discussion of this document takes place on the Key Transparency Working Group mailing list (, which is archived at Subscribe at

Source for this draft and an issue tracker can be found at

Status of This Memo

This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Note that other groups may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts. The list of current Internet-Drafts is at

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

This Internet-Draft will expire on 5 September 2024.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Before any information can be exchanged in an end-to-end encrypted system, two things must happen. First, participants in the system must provide the service operator with any public keys they wish to use to receive messages. Second, the service operator must somehow distribute these public keys amongst the participants that wish to communicate with each other.

Typically this is done by having users upload their public keys to a simple directory where other users can download them as necessary, or by providing public keys in-band with the communication being secured. With this approach, the service operator needs to be trusted to provide the correct public keys, which means that the underlying encryption protocol can only protect users against passive eavesdropping on their messages.

However most messaging systems are designed such that all messages exchanged between users flow through the service operator's servers, so it's extremely easy for an operator to launch an active attack. That is, the service operator can provide fake public keys which it knows the private keys for, associate those public keys with a user's account without the user's knowledge, and then use them to impersonate or eavesdrop on conversations with that user.

Key Transparency (KT) solves this problem by requiring the service operator to store user public keys in a cryptographically-protected append-only log. Any malicious entries added to such a log will generally be equally visible to both the key's owner and the owner's contacts, in which case a user can detect that they are being impersonated by viewing the public keys attached to their account. If the service operator attempts to conceal some entries of the log from some users but not others, this creates a "forked view" which is permanent and easily detectable with out-of-band communication.

The critical improvement of KT over related protocols like Certificate Transparency [RFC6962] is that KT includes an efficient protocol to search the log for entries related to a specific participant. This means users don't need to download the entire log, which may be substantial, to find all entries that are relevant to them. It also means that KT can better preserve user privacy by only showing entries of the log to participants that genuinely need to see them.

2. Conventions and Definitions

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

End-to-end Encrypted Communication Service:

A communications service that allows end-users to engage in text, voice, video, or other forms of communication over the Internet, that uses public key cryptography to ensure that communications are only accessible to their intended recipients.

End-user Device:

The device at the final point in a digital communication, which may either send or receive encrypted data in an end-to-end encrypted communication service.

End-user Identity:

A unique and user-visible identity associated with an account (and therefore one or more end-user devices) in an end-to-end encrypted communication service. In the case where an end-user explicitly requests to communicate with (or is informed they are communicating with) an end-user uniquely identified by the name "Alice", the end-user identity is the string "Alice".

User / Account:

A single end-user of an end-to-end encrypted communication service, which may be represented by several end-user identities and end-user devices. For example, a user may be represented simultaneously by multiple identities (email, phone number, username) and interact with the service on multiple devices (phone, laptop).

Service Operator:

The primary organization that provides the infrastructure and software resources necessary to operate an end-to-end encrypted communication service.

Transparency Log:

A specialized service capable of securely attesting to the information (such as public keys) associated with a given end-user identity. The transparency log is usually run either entirely or partially by the service operator.

3. Protocol Overview

From a networking perspective, KT follows a client-server architecture with a central Transparency Log, acting as a server, which holds the authoritative copy of all information and exposes endpoints that allow users to query or modify stored data. Users coordinate with each other through the server by uploading their own public keys and/or downloading the public keys of other users. Users are expected to maintain relatively little state, limited only to what is required to interact with the log and ensure that it is behaving honestly.

From an application perspective, KT works as a versioned key-value database. Users insert key-value pairs into the database where, for example, the key is their username and the value is their public key. Users can update a key by inserting a new version with new data. They can also look up the most recent version of a key or any past version. Users are considered to own a key if, in the normal operation of the application, they should be the only one making changes to it. From this point forward, "key" will refer to a lookup key in a key-value database and "public key" or "private key" will be specified if otherwise.

KT does not require the use of a specific transport protocol. This is intended to allow applications to layer KT on top of whatever transport protocol their application already uses. In particular, this allows applications to continue relying on their existing access control system.

Applications may enforce arbitrary access control rules on top of KT such as requiring a user to be logged in to make KT requests, only allowing a user to lookup the keys of another user if they're "friends", or simply applying a rate limit. Applications SHOULD prevent users from modifying keys that they don't own. The exact mechanism for rejecting requests, and possibly explaining the reason for rejection, is left to the application.

4. User Interactions

As discussed in Section 3, KT follows a client-server architecture. This means users generally interact directly with the transparency log. The operations that can be executed by a user are as follows:

  1. Search: Performs a lookup on a specific key in the most recent version of the log. Users may request either a specific version of the key, or the most recent version available. If the key-version pair exists, the server returns the corresponding value and a proof of inclusion.

  2. Update: Adds a new key-value pair to the log, for which the server returns a proof of inclusion. Note that this means that new values are added to the log immediately and no provisional inclusion proof, such as an SCT as defined in Section 3 of [RFC6962], is provided.

  3. Monitor: While Search and Update are run by the user as necessary, monitoring is done in the background on a recurring basis. It both checks that the log is continuing to behave honestly (all previously returned keys remain in the tree) and that no changes have been made to keys owned by the user without the user's knowledge.

These operations are executed over an application-provided transport layer, where the transport layer enforces access control by blocking queries which are not allowed:

Alice Transparency Log (Valid / Accepted Requests) Search(Alice) SearchResponse(...) Search(Bob) SearchResponse(...) Update(Alice, ...) UpdateResponse(...) (Rejected / Blocked Requests) Search(Fred) X Update(Bob, ...) X
Figure 1: Example request/response flow. Valid requests receive a response while invalid requests are blocked by the transport layer.

An important caveat to the client-server architecture is that many end-to-end encrypted communication services require the ability to provide credentials to their users. These credentials convey a binding between an end-user identity and potentially several encryption or signature public keys, and are meant to be verified with no/minimal network requests by the receiving users.

In particular, credentials that can be verified with minimal network access are often required by applications provide anonymous communication. These applications provide end-to-end encryption with a protocol like the Messaging Layer Security protocol [RFC9420] (with the encryption of handshake messages required), or Sealed Sender [sealed-sender]. When a user receives a message, these protocols have senders provide their own credential in an encrypted portion of the message. Encrypting the sender's credential prevents it from being visible to the service provider, while still assuring the recipient of the sender's identity. If users were to authenticate the sender's public key directly with the service provider, they would leak to the service provider who the they are communicating with.

Key Transparency credentials can be created by serializing one or more Search request-response pairs. These Search operations would correspond to the lookups a user needs to do to prove the relationship between their end-user identity and their cryptographic keys. Recipients can verify the request-response pairs themselves without contacting the Transparency Log.

Any future monitoring that may be required can be provided to recipients proactively by the sender. However if this fails, the recipient can still perform the monitoring themselves (including over an anonymous channel if necessary).

Transparency Log Alice Anonymous Group Search(Alice) SearchResponse(...) Encrypt(Anon Group, SearchResponse || Message || Signature) Monitor(Alice) MonitorResponse(...) Encrypt(Anon Group, MonitorResponse)
Figure 2: Example message flow in an anonymous deployment. Users request their own key from the Transparency Log and provide the serialized response, functioning as a credential, in encrypted messages to other users. Required monitoring is provided proactively.

4.1. Out-of-Band Communication

It is sometimes possible for a Transparency Log to present forked views of data to different users. This means that, from an individual user's perspective, a log may appear to be operating correctly in the sense that all of a user's requests succeed and proofs verify correctly. However, the Transparency Log has presented a view to the user that's not globally consistent with what it has shown other users. As such, the log may be able to associate data with keys without the key owner's awareness.

The protocol is designed such that users always require subsequent queries to prove consistency with previous queries. As such, users always stay on a linearizable view of the log. If a user is ever presented with a forked view, they hold on to this forked view forever and reject the output of any subsequent queries that are inconsistent with it.

This provides ample opportunity for users to detect when a fork has been presented, but isn't in itself sufficient for detection. To detect forks, users must either use peer-to-peer communication or anonymous communication with the Transparency Log.

With peer-to-peer communication, two users gossip with each other to establish that they both have the same view of the log's data. This gossip is able to happen over any supported out-of-band channel, even if it is heavily bandwidth-limited, such as scanning a QR code or talking over the phone.

With anonymous communication, a single user accesses the Transparency Log over an anonymous channel and tries to establish that the log is presenting the same view of data over the anonymous channel as it does over authenticated channels.

In the event that a fork is successfully detected, the user is able to produce non-repudiable proof of log misbehavior which can be published.

Alice Bob Transparency Log (Normal reqs over authenticated channel) Search(Bob) Response{Head: 6c063bb, ...} (OOB check with peer) (OOB check over anonymous channel) DistinguishedHead DistinguishedHead 6c063bb 6c063bb Search(Bob) X
Figure 3: Users receive tree heads while making authenticated requests to a Transparency Log. Users ensure consistency of tree heads by either comparing amongst themselves, or by contacting the Transparency Log over an anonymous channel. Requests that require authorization are not available over the anonymous channel.

5. Deployment Modes

In the interest of satisfying the widest range of use-cases possible, three different modes for deploying a Transparency Log are supported. Each mode has slightly different requirements and efficiency considerations for both the transparency log and the end-user.

Third-Party Management and Third-Party Auditing are two deployment modes that require the transparency log to delegate part of its operation to a third party. Users are able to run more efficiently as long as they can assume that the transparency log and the third party won't collude to trick them into accepting malicious results.

With both third-party modes, all requests from end-users are initially routed to the transparency log and the log coordinates with the third party itself. End-users never contact the third party directly, however they will need a signature public key from the third party to verify its assertions.

With Third-Party Management, the third party performs the majority of the work of actually storing and operating the service, and the transparency log only signs new entries as they're added. With Third-Party Auditing, the transparency log performs the majority of the work of storing and operating the service, and obtains signatures from a lightweight third-party auditor at regular intervals asserting that the tree has been constructed correctly.

Contact Monitoring, on the other hand, supports a single-party deployment with no third party. The cost of this is that executing the background monitoring protocol requires an amount of work that's proportional to the number of keys a user has looked up in the past. As such, it's less suited to use-cases where users look up a large number of ephemeral keys, but would work ideally in a use-case where users look up a limited number of keys repeatedly (for example, the keys of regular contacts).

Table 1: Comparison of deployment modes
Deployment Mode Supports ephemeral keys? Single party?
Contact Monitoring No Yes
Third-Party Auditing Yes No
Third-Party Management Yes No

Applications that rely on a Transparency Log deployed in Contact Monitoring mode MUST regularly engage in out-of-band communication (Section 4.1) to ensure that they detect forks in a timely manner.

Applications that rely on a Transparency Log deployed in either of the third-party modes SHOULD allow users to enable a "Contact Monitoring Mode". This mode, which affects only the individual client's behavior, would cause the client to behave as if its Transparency Log was deployed in Contact Monitoring mode. As such, it would start retaining state about previously looked-up keys and regularly engaging in out-of-band communication. Enabling this higher-security mode allows users to double-check that the third-party is not colluding with the Transparency Log to serve malicious data.

5.1. Contact Monitoring

With the Contact Monitoring deployment mode, the monitoring burden is split between both the owner of a key and those that look up the key. Stated as simply as possible, the monitoring obligations of each party are:

  1. The key owner, on a regular basis, searches for the most recent version of the key in the log. They verify that the key has not changed unexpectedly.

  2. The users that looked up a key, at some point in the future, verify that the key-value pair they observed is still properly represented in the tree such that other users would find it if they searched for it.

This guarantees that if a malicious key-value pair is added to the log, then either it is detected by the key owner, or if it is removed/obscured from the log before the key owner can detect it, then any users that observed it will detect its removal.

Alice Transparency Log Bob Search(Bob) SearchResponse(...) (1 day later) Monitor(Bob) MonitorResponse(...) (2 days later) Monitor(Bob) MonitorResponse(...) Monitor(Bob) (4 days later) MonitorResponse(...) Monitor(Bob) MonitorResponse(...) ...
Figure 4: Contact Monitoring. When users make a Search request, they must check back in with the Transparency Log several times. These checks ensure that the data in the Search response wasn't later removed from the log. Overlap with the key owner's own monitoring guarantees a consistent view of data.

5.2. Third-Party Auditing

With the Third-Party Auditing deployment mode, the transparency log obtains signatures from a lightweight third-party auditor attesting to the fact that the tree has been constructed correctly. These signatures are provided to users along with the responses for their queries.

The third-party auditor is expected to run asynchronously, downloading and authenticating a log's contents in the background, so as not to become a bottleneck for the transparency log.

Many Users Transparency Log Auditor Update(Alice, ...) Update(Bob, ...) Update(Carol, ...) Response{AuditorSig: 66bf, ...} BatchUpdate NewSig: 53c1035
Figure 5: Third-Party Auditing. A recent signature from the auditor is provided to users. The auditor is updated on changes to the tree in the background.

5.3. Third-Party Management

With the Third-Party Management deployment mode, a third party is responsible for the majority of the work of storing and operating the log, while the transparency log serves mainly to enforce access control and authenticate the addition of new entries to the log. All user queries are initially sent by users directly to the transparency log, and the log operator proxies them to the third-party manager if they pass access control.

Alice Transparency Log Manager Search(Alice) SearchResponse(...) Update(Alice, ...) UpdateResponse(...) Search(Fred) X Update(Bob, ...) X
Figure 6: Third-Party Management. Valid requests are proxied by the Transparency Log to the Manager. Rejected requests are blocked.

6. Combining Logs

There are many cases where it makes sense to operate multiple cooperating log instances, for example:

Client implementations should generally be prepared to interact with multiple logs simultaneously. In particular, clients SHOULD namespace any configuration or state related to a particular log, such that information related to different logs do not conflict.

When multiple logs are used, all users in the system MUST have a consistent policy for executing Search, Update, and Monitor queries against the logs in a way that maintains the high-level security guarantees of KT:

6.1. Gradual Migration

In the case of gradually migrating from an old log to a new one, this policy may look like:

  1. Search queries should be executed against the old log first, and then against the new log only if the most recent version of a key in the old log is a special application-defined 'tombstone' entry.

  2. Update queries should only be executed against the new log, adding a tombstone entry to the old log if one hasn't been already created.

  3. Both logs should be monitored as they would be if they were run individually. Once the migration has completed and the old log has stopped accepting changes, the old log MUST stay operational long enough for all users to complete their monitoring of it (keeping in mind that some users may be offline for a significant amount of time).

Placing a tombstone entry for each key in the old log gives users a clear indication as to which log contains the most recent version of a key and prevents them from incorrectly accepting a stale version if the new log rejects a search query.

6.2. Immediate Migration

In the event of a key compromise, the service provider may instead choose to stop adding new entries to a log immediately and provide a new log that is pre-populated with the most recent versions of all keys. In this case, the policy may look like:

  1. Search queries must be executed against the new log.

  2. Update queries must be executed against the new log.

  3. The final tree size and root hash of the old log should be provided to users over a trustworthy channel. Users will use this to do any final monitoring of the old log, and then ensure that the most recent versions of the keys they own are properly represented in the new log. From then on, users will monitor only the new log.

The final tree size and root hash of the prior log must be distributed to users in a way that guarantees all users have a globally-consistent view. This can be done either by storing them in a well-known key of the new log, or with the application's code distribution mechanism.

6.3. Federation

In a federated application, many servers that are owned and operated by different entities will cooperate to provide a single end-to-end encrypted communication service. Each entity in a federated system provides its own infrastructure (in particular, a transparency log) to serve the users that rely on it. Given this, there must be a consistent policy for directing KT requests to the correct transparency log. Typically in such a system, the end-user identity directly specifies which entity requests should be directed to. For example, with an email end-user identity like, the controlling entity is

A controlling entity like may act as an anonymizing proxy for its users when querying transparency logs run by other entities (in the manner of [RFC9458]), but should not attempt to 'mirror' or combine other transparency logs with its own.

7. Pruning

As part of the core infrastructure of an end-to-end encrypted communication service, Transparency Logs are required to operate seamlessly for several years. This presents a problem for general append-only logs, as even moderate usage can cause the log to grow to an unmanageable size. This issue is further compounded by the fact that a substantial portion of the entries added to a log may be fake, having been added solely for the purpose of obscuring short-term update rates (as discussed in Section 8.1). Given this, Transparency Logs need to be able manage their footprint by pruning data which is no longer required by the communication service.

Broadly speaking, a Transparency Log's database will contain two types of data:

  1. Serialized user data (the values corresponding to keys in the log), and

  2. Cryptographic data, such as pre-computed portions of hash trees or commitment openings.

The first type, serialized user data, can be pruned by removing any entries that the service operator's access control policy would never permit access to. For example, a service operator may only permit clients to search for the most recent version (or n versions) of a key. Any entries that don't meet this criteria can be deleted without consideration to the rest of the protocol.

The second type, cryptographic data, can also be pruned, but only after considering which parts are no longer required by the protocol for producing proofs. For example, even though the key-value pair inserted at a particular entry in the append-only log may have been deleted, parts of the log entry may still be needed to produce proofs for Search / Update / Monitor queries on other keys. The exact mechanism for determining which data is safe to delete will depend on the implementation.

The distinction between user data and cryptographic data provides a valuable separation of concerns, given that the protocol document does not provide a mechanism for a service operator to convey its access control policy to a Transparency Log. That is: pruning user data can be done entirely by application-defined code, while pruning cryptographic data can be done entirely by KT-specific code as a subsequent operation.

8. Security Guarantees

A user that correctly verifies a proof from the Transparency Log (and does any required monitoring afterwards) receives a guarantee that the Transparency Log operator executed the key-value lookup correctly, and in a way that's globally consistent with what it has shown all other users. That is, when a user searches for a key, they're guaranteed that the result they receive represents the same result that any other user searching for the same key would've seen. When a user modifies a key, they're guaranteed that other users will see the modification the next time they search for the key.

If the Transparency Log operator does not execute a key-value lookup correctly, then either:

  1. The user will detect the error immediately and reject the proof, or

  2. The user will permanently enter an invalid state.

Depending on the exact reason that the user enters an invalid state, it will either be detected by background monitoring or the next time that out-of-band communication is available. Importantly, this means that users must stay online for some bounded amount of time after entering an invalid state for it to be successfully detected.

Alternatively, instead of executing a lookup incorrectly, the Transparency Log can attempt to prevent a user from learning about more recent states of the log. This would allow the log to continue executing queries correctly, but on outdated versions of data. To prevent this, applications configure an upper bound on how stale a query response can be without being rejected.

The exact caveats of the above guarantees depend naturally on the security of underlying cryptographic primitives, and also the deployment mode that the Transparency Log relies on:

In short, assuming that the underlying cryptographic primitives used are secure, any deployment-specific assumptions hold (such as non-collusion), and that user devices don't go permanently offline, then malicious behavior by the Transparency Log is always detected within a bounded amount of time. The parameters that determine the maximum amount of time before malicious behavior is detected are as follows:

8.1. Privacy Guarantees

For applications deploying KT, service operators expect to be able to control when sensitive information is revealed. In particular, an operator can often only reveal that a user is a member of their service, and information about that user's account, to that user's friends or contacts.

KT only allows users to learn whether or not a lookup key exists in the Transparency Log if the user obtains a valid search proof for that key. Similarly, KT only allows users to learn about the contents of a log entry if the user obtains a valid search proof for the exact key and version stored at that log entry.

Applications are primarily able to manage the privacy of their data in KT by relying on these properties when they enforce access control policies on the queries issued by users, as discussed in Section 3. For example if two users aren't friends, an application can block these users from searching for each other's lookup keys. This prevents the two users from learning about each other's existence. If the users were previously friends but no longer are, the application can prevent the users from searching for each other's keys and learning the contents of any subsequent account updates.

Service operators also expect to be able to control sensitive population-level metrics about their users. These metrics include the size of their userbase, the frequency with which new users join, and the frequency with which existing users update their keys.

KT allows a service operator to obscure the size of its userbase by padding the tree with fake entries. Similarly, it also allows a service operator to obscure the rate at which changes are made by padding real changes with fake ones, causing outsiders to observe a baseline constant rate of changes.

8.1.1. Leakage to Third-Party

In the event that a third-party auditor or manager is used, there's additional information leaked to the third-party that's not visible to outsiders.

In the case of a third-party auditor, the auditor is able to learn the total number of distinct changes to the log. It is also able to learn the order and approximate timing with which each change was made. However, auditors are not able to learn the plaintext of any keys or values. This is because keys are masked with a VRF, and values are only provided to auditors as commitments. They are also not able to distinguish between whether a change represents a key being created for the first time or being updated, or whether a change represents a "real" change from an end-user or a "fake" padding change.

In the case of a third-party manager, the manager generally learns everything that the service operator would know. This includes the total set of plaintext keys and values and their modification history. It also includes traffic patterns, such as how often a specific key is looked up.

9. Privacy Law Considerations

Consumer privacy laws often provide a 'right to erasure', meaning that when a consumer requests that a service provider delete their personal information, the service provider is legally obligated to do so. This may seem to be incompatible with the description of KT in Section 1 as an 'append-only log'. Once an entry is added to a transparency log, it indeed can not be removed.

The important caveat here is that user data is not directly stored in the append-only log. Instead, the log consists of privacy-preserving cryptographic commitments. By logging commitments instead of plaintext user data, users interacting with the log are unable to infer anything about an entry's contents until the service provider explicitly provides the commitment's opening. A service provider responding to an erasure request can delete the commitment opening and the associated data, effectively anonymizing the entry.

Other than the log, the second place where user information is stored is in the prefix tree. This is a cryptographic index provided to users to allow them to efficiently query the log, which contains information about which lookup keys exist and where. These lookup keys are usually serialized end-user identifiers, although it varies by application. To minimize leakage, all lookup keys are processed through a Verifiable Random Function, or VRF [RFC9381].

A VRF deterministically maps each lookup key to the fixed-length pseudorandom value. The VRF can only be executed by the service operator, who holds a private key. But critically, VRFs can still provide a proof that an input-output pair is valid, which users verify with a public key. When a user tries to search for or update a key, the service operator first executes its VRF on the input lookup key to obtain the output key that will actually be looked up or stored in the prefix tree. The service operator then provides the output key, along with a proof that the output key is correct, in its response to the user.

The pseudorandom output of VRFs means that even if a user indirectly observes that a search key exists in the prefix tree, they can't immediately learn which user the search key identifies. The inability of users to execute the VRF themselves also prevents offline "password cracking" approaches, where an attacker tries all possibilities in a low entropy space (like the set of phone numbers) to find the input that produces a given search key.

A service provider responding to an erasure request can 'trim' the prefix tree, by no longer storing the full VRF output for any lookup keys corresponding to an end-user's identifiers. With only a small amount of the VRF output left in storage, even if the transparency log is later compromised, it would be unable to recover deleted identifiers. If the same lookup keys were reinserted into the log at a later time, it would appear as if they were being inserted for the first time.

As an example, consider the information stored in a transparency log after inserting a key K with value V. The value stored in the prefix tree would roughly correspond to VRF(key K) = pseudorandom bytes, and the value stored in the append-only log would roughly correspond to:

Commit(nonce: random bytes, body: version N of key K is V)

After receiving an erasure request, the transparency log deletes the key, value, and random commitment nonce. It also trims the VRF output to the minimum size necessary. The commitment scheme guarantees that, without the high-entropy random nonce, the remaining commitment reveals nothing about the key or value.

Assuming that the prefix tree is well-balanced (which is extremely likely due to VRFs being pseudorandom), the number of VRF output bits retained is approximately equal to the logarithm of the total number of keys logged. This means that while the VRF's full output may be 256 bits, in a log with one million keys, only 20 output bits would need to be retained. This would be insufficient for recovering even a very low-entropy identifier like a phone number.

10. Implementation Guidance

Fundamentally, KT can be thought of as guaranteeing that all the users of a service agree on the contents of a key-value database. Using this guarantee, that all users agree on a set of keys and values, to authenticate the relationship between end-user identities and the end-users of a communication service takes special care. Critically, in order to authenticate an end-user identity, it must be both unique and user-visible. However, what exactly constitutes a unique and user-visible identifier varies greatly from application to application.

Consider, for example, a communication service where users are uniquely identified by a fixed username, but KT has been deployed using an internal UUID as the lookup key. While the UUID might be unique, it is not user-visible. When a user attempts to lookup a contact by username, the service operator must translate the username into its UUID. Since this mapping (from username to UUID) is unauthenticated, the service operator can manipulate it to eavesdrop on conversations by returning the UUID for an account that it controls. From a security perspective, this is equivalent to not using KT at all. An example of this kind of application would be email.

However in other applications, the use of internal UUIDs in KT may be appropriate. For example, many applications don't have this type of fixed username and instead use their UI (underpinned internally by a UUID) to indicate to users whether a conversation is with a new person or someone they've previously contacted. The fact that the UI behaves in this way makes the UUID a user-visible identifer, even if a user may not be able to actually see it written out. An example of this kind of application would be Slack.

A primary end-user identity is one that is unique, user-visible, and unable to change. (Or equivalently, if it changes, it appears in the application UI as a new conversation with a new user.) A primary end-user identity should always be a lookup key in KT, with the end-user's public keys as the associated value.

A secondary end-user identity is one that is unique, user-visible, and able to change without being interpreted as a different account due to its association with a primary identity. Examples of this type of identity include phone numbers, or most usernames. These identities are used solely for initial user discovery, in which they're converted to a primary identity that's used by the application from then on. A secondary end-user identity should be a lookup key in KT, for the purpose of authenticating user discovery, with the primary end-user identity as the associated value.

While likely helpful to most common applications, the distinction between handling primary and secondary identities is not a hard-and-fast rule. Applications must be careful to ensure they fully capture the semantics of identity in their application with the key-value structure they put in KT.

11. IANA Considerations

This document has no IANA actions.

12. References

12.1. Normative References

Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <>.
Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, , <>.

12.2. Informative References

Laurie, B., Langley, A., and E. Kasper, "Certificate Transparency", RFC 6962, DOI 10.17487/RFC6962, , <>.
Goldberg, S., Reyzin, L., Papadopoulos, D., and J. Včelák, "Verifiable Random Functions (VRFs)", RFC 9381, DOI 10.17487/RFC9381, , <>.
Barnes, R., Beurdouche, B., Robert, R., Millican, J., Omara, E., and K. Cohn-Gordon, "The Messaging Layer Security (MLS) Protocol", RFC 9420, DOI 10.17487/RFC9420, , <>.
Thomson, M. and C. A. Wood, "Oblivious HTTP", RFC 9458, DOI 10.17487/RFC9458, , <>.
"Technology preview: Sealed sender for Signal", , <>.


TODO acknowledge.

Author's Address

Brendan McMillion