Reconciling Forward Secrecy with Network Traffic Visibility in Enterprise Deployments of TLS 1.3

Update. I have updated the post to say that the middlebox and the server must both use an ephemeral key pair.

Update. I said that the TLS server uses a key derivation function to derive a key pair from the secret that it shares with the middlebox. I should have said, more precisely, that it uses the secret to derive bits that are then used to generate a key pair. I’ve corrected this below, and I will write another post to provide more details.

TLS 1.3 has removed the static RSA and static Diffie-Hellman cipher suites, so that all key exchange mechanisms based on public-key cryptography now provide forward secrecy. This is great for security, but creates a problem for enterprise deployments of the TLS protocol.

As explained in the Enterprise Transport Security specification of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), enterprises need to inspect the network traffic inside their data centers for reasons including application health monitoring, troubleshooting, intrusion detection, detection of malware activity, detection of denial-of-service attacks, and compliance audits.

Visibility of plaintext network traffic is usually achieved by means of passive middleboxes that observe the encrypted network traffic and are able to decrypt it. When a middlebox observes a TLS 1.2 key exchange, if the server uses a static RSA or static Diffie-Hellman key pair and the middlebox is provided with a copy of the private key component of the static key pair, the middlebox can compute the session keys in the same manner as the server, and use the session keys to decrypt the subsequent traffic.

The problem is that this method cannot be used with TLS 1.3, and enterprise data centers cannot refuse to upgrade and get stuck at TLS 1.2 forever.

The above mentioned ETSI specification proposes a clever solution. The TLS client and server follow the TLS 1.3 specification, but the server cheats by using a static Diffie-Hellman key pair while pretending to use an ephemeral one, and shares the static private key with the middlebox. This solution works, but fails to achieve the security benefit of forward secrecy.

I would like to propose instead a solution, illustrated in Figure 1, that requires no cheating and achieves both forward secrecy and visibility of the traffic plaintext to the middlebox.

Figure 1

The TLS client and the TLS server fully implement TLS 1.3. When the server and the middlebox see the ClientHello message, they perform a Diffie-Hellman (DH) or Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) key exchange where each side (server and middlebox) uses an ephemeral key pair whose public key component is signed by the private key component of a long-term signature key pair. The result of this (EC)DH key exchange is an ephemeral secret shared between the TLS server and the middlebox. The TLS server uses that shared secret to derive bits, by means of a key derivation algorithm such as HKDF, that it in turn uses to generate an (EC)DH key pair that it uses in the TLS key exchange. This (EC)DH key pair is ephemeral and provides forward secrecy, because it is derived from the ephemeral shared secret. The middlebox uses the shared secret to derive the same ephemeral (EC)DH key pair in the same manner as the TLS server. Then it uses that shared ephemeral key pair to compute the session keys, and uses the session keys to decrypt the subsequent traffic.

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