RFC 644 On the problem of signature authentication for network mail
Network Working Group Bob Thomas
Request for Comments: 644 BBN-TENEX
On the Problem of Signature Authentication for Network Mail
This note describes the problem of signature authentication for network
mail, presents a general approach to the problem and proposes a specific
implementation of that approach.
1. The Problem
The problem we wish to consider is:
How can the recipient of a network mail message be "certain"
that the signature (e.g., the name in the "FROM" field) is
authentic; that is, that the message is really from whom it
claims to be?
We are interested in the problem of signature authenticity in the network
context. For purposes of this note we shall assume a solution to the
signature authentication problem for local mail (i.e., messages from one
user to another within a single host). That is, we assume that for any
host, either the host regards the problem as important and has a mechanism
for guaranteeing signatures on local mail or that the host does not regard the
problem as important and does not guarantee signature authentication. It
should become clear how this assumption relates to our approach to the network
We shall discuss our approach using the following simple model for network
To send net mail a user invokes a mail sending process (SP) on
his local host (SH). The process SP acts on behalf of the user
to deliver the message to an appropriate mailbox at the
receiving host (RH). It does that by interacting with a
receiving process (RP) that runs on host RH. RP accepts the
message from SP and deposits it in the appropriate mailbox.
In the current implementation of network mail, the receiving process RP is
typically an FTP server process. For the current TENEX implementation the
mail sending process SP is either a process running SNDMSG or a "background"
MAILER process which sends "queued" (previously posted but undelivered) mail.
2. An Approach
We seek a solution which will allow RP, the receiving process, to mark
the signature on messages it receives as authenticated or not with
respect to SH, the sending host. If RP can so mark incoming messages,
a user reading his mail at RH would be able to see the signature on each
message as authenticated or not with respect to the host of origin. The
authenticity of the signature on a piece of mail is understood to be
responsibility of the originating host. The credibility a user gives a
particular message which is marked as authentic can be based on the user's
own estimate of the source host's user authentication and access control
The success of this approach depends upon two things:
a. Users develop estimates of the security of various host user
authentication and access control mechanisms. We have seen that
users who are concerned about data privacy and security are
already doing this within the ARPANET.
b. The existence of a mechanism which RP, the receiving process,
can use to distinguish mail authenticated with respect to the
sending host from mail that has not been authenticated by the
sending host. That is, a mechanism is required which will allow a
properly authorized (by the sending host) mail sending process to
identify itself as such to the mail receiving process. The
receiving process can then mark mail from such an authenticated
process as authentic. Nonauthorized processes (e.g., a user
process attempting to pose as an authorized mail sending process)
may try to send mail to mailboxes at RH; in such a case the
receiving process has the option of refusing to accept the message
or accepting them marking them as unauthenticated.
3. Proposed Implementation of Approach
The use of passwords is one possible way to accomplish sending process
authentication. Only an authorized sending process would know the password
and thus be able to properly identify itself to a mail receiving process.
We reject the password mechanism as operationally impractical for the following
a. Use of a password requires that the password be stored in
the sending program or be accessible to it in some way thereby
increasing the likelihood that the privacy of such a password will
b. If a password is compromised, it must be changed at both
sending and receiving hosts; a synchronization problem.
c. Truly secure mail would probably require passwords for each
pair of hosts; this requires N*N passwords for an N host network.
As an alternative to the use of passwords as a means for process
authentication, we propose that authentication be based on the
communication path itself between the sending and receiving process.
In the ARPANET, a communication path is uniquely identified by its two
ends: the send host-socket pair and the receive host-socket pair. A
process can accurately determine the host-socket pair at the remote end
of a communication path. We propose that the receiving process
consider the sending process to be a properly authorized (by the
sending host) sender of mail only if the sending end of the
communication path is (one of) the socket(s) reserved for transmission
of authenticated mail. The mail sending socket(s) would be reserved
by prior host agreement.
The responsibility of the sending host is to allow only authorized
mail sending processes to access the mail sending socket(s). The
responsibility of the user concerned about the authenticity of his
mail is to understand that mail marked as authentic means that the
sending host has determined the identity of the sender and that the
signature on such mail is only as good or bad as the user authentication
and access control procedures of the sending host.
4. Additional Remarks
a. The use of sockets for process authentication is not a new concept
within the ARPANET. By host agreement, the TELNET logger process
responds to connections to socket #1, the FTP logger process to socket
#3, etc. In fact, the privacy of net mail depends upon how well the
host controls access to the FTP logger socket; that is, the
authenticity of the mail receiving process is based upon that fact
that it is the process reached by ICP'ing to socket #3. This note
proposes that the same mechanism be used to provide authentication of
mail sending processes.
b. Planned TENEX Experiment
A set of sockets has been assigned for mail transmission. They are
(all numbers are decimal)
ICP "from" socket - 232
FTP user command sockets: receive, send = 234, 235
Default data transfer (user, send) socket = 237
We intend to modify the TENEX mail sending, receiving and reading
software as suggested above. Mail sent by TENEX to remote hosts
which is authentic (with respect to TENEX) will be sent by initiating
the ICP to the remote FTP server socket 232. Mail received from
remote hosts will be marked as authentic only if the ICP to the TENEX
FTP server was initiated from remote socket 232. The TENEX mail
reading software will indicate for each message whether or not the
signature on the message was source authenticated.
c. Contention for the Mail Sending Socket
Depending upon the implementation of the sending host's NCP and
its mail net sending software, it may be the case that several users
concurrently sending network mail may be competing for the single
ICP "from" socket. If socket contention turns out to be a serious
problem in practice, a set of ICP "from" sockets could be reserved
for authenticated network mail.
d. The local mail signature authentication problem is nearly independent
of the network mail signature authentication problem as we have
discussed it. For example, the following observations can be made:
1. The local users of a host which does not authenticate local mail
probably should not expect the host to reliably deliver
authenticated network mail to them. Because local mail is not
authenticated, it is likely that a malicious local user could
add to other users' mail boxes forged messages which are formatted
identically to net mail and are marked as authentic in the way
the host's mail receiving process marks mail.
2. A host that has strong user authentication procedures and
authenticates local mail is not necessarily a reliable source
of authenticated network mail. In order to be a reliable source,
it must limit access to the net mail transmission socket(s) to
authorized mail sending processes.
3. A host which does not support local authentic mail could be a
reliable source of authentic net mail.