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Future of OMEMO

OMEMO is an XMPP extension protocol, which specifies end-to-end encryption for XMPP clients using the double ratchet algorithm of the Signal protocol. Introduced back in 2015 by GSoC student Andreas Straub in the Conversations client, OMEMO had a lot of press coverage and many privacy and security oriented websites praise XMPP clients that do support it. Its beyond debate, that OMEMO brought many new faces to XMPP. For many users, having end-to-end encryption built into their chat client is a must. Today OMEMO is implemented in a range of clients on different platforms. While Conversations, ChatSecure and Dino support it out of the box, there is a series of plugins that teach OMEMO to other clients such as Gajim, Pidgin and Miranda NG.

However, there is quite a lot of controversy around OMEMO. Part of it are technical discussions, others are more or less of a political nature. Let me list some of them for you.

Some users and client developers see no value in OMEMOs forward secrecy (the fact, that messages can only be decrypted once per device, so new devices do not have access to the chat history of the user). That is a fair point. Especially webclients have a hard time implementing OMEMO in a sensible way. Also the average user is probably having a hard time understanding what exactly forward secrecy is and what the consequences are. Communicating to the user, that not having access to past messages is actually a feature might be a hard task for a client developer.

OMEMOs trust management (still) sucks. One architectural key feature of OMEMO is, that every device does have its own identity key. If a user wants to send a message to one of their contacts, they’re presented with a list of all of their identity keys. Now they have to decide, which keys to trust and which not by comparing fingerprints (seamingly arbitrary strings of 64 characters). This is not a very comfortable thing to do. Some clients encourage the user to verify your contacts devices by scanning QR-Codes, which is way more comfortable, users do however have to meet up in person or share the QR code on another channel.
But what if you get a new device or just reinstall your chat application? Suddenly all your contacts have to decide whether to trust your new fingerprint or not. In the long run this will lead to the user just being annoyed and blindly accepting new fingerprints, ruining the concept of end-to-end encryption.

Daniel Gultsch introduced the concept of BTBV (Blind Trust Before Verification) which can be summed up as “do not bother the user with encryption and hope everything goes well until the user explicitly states that they are interested in having good security”. The principle is, that clients blindly trust any OMEMO identity keys until the user commits to verifying them manually. This makes OMEMO easy to use for those who don’t really care about it, while offering serious users who depend on it the needed security.

But what do you do, if suddenly a rogue fingerprint appears? Do you panic and message all your contacts not to trust the stranger key? In theory any device which has access to the users account (the users server too) can just add another OMEMO identity key to the users list of devices and there is not really anything the user can do about it. OMEMO does not have a “blacklist”-feature or a signed list of trusted keys. It would however be possible to implement such thing in the future by combining OMEMO with OpenPGP for example. Of course, if some stranger has access to your account, it is time to change the password/server anyways.

Another weakness of OMEMO is, that it is currently only usable for encrypting the messages body. Since XMPP is an extensible protocol with other use cases than messaging, it would be nice to have support for arbitrary extension element encryption. There is however the extension protocol “OX” (XEP-0373: OpenPGP for XMPP), which has such capabilities. This feature can be extracted from OX and reused in OMEMO relatively easy.

Lets now focus on the “political” controversies around OMEMO.

In 2016/2017 there has been a lot of discussions, whether or not OMEMO should become a standard in the first place. The problem is, that in it’s current form (which has not really changes since its introduction), OMEMO depends on the wire format used by libsignal (the Signal protocol library used by conversations). That library however is licensed under the GPLv3 license, preventing permissively licensed and closed source applications from implementing OMEMO. While the Signal protocol itself is openly documented, the wire format used by libsignal is not, so any implementations which want to be compatible to current OMEMO clients must implement the same wire format by looking into the libsignal source code, which in turn makes the implementation a derivative of libsignal, which must be licensed under the GPL as well. There has been a pull request against the OMEMO XEP which addressed this issue by specifying an independent wire format for OMEMO, however that pull request was more or less rejected due to inactivity of the author.

During the phases of hot debates around OMEMO, it was discussed to base the protocol on Olm instead of the Signal protocol. Olm is the encryption protocol used by matrix.org. However, up to this point there is no Olm based OMEMO implementation, that I know of, neither have there been any experiments in that direction from people that proposed the idea (again – not that I know of).

Another idea was to completely redesign OMEMOs double ratchet specification as OMEMO-NEXT from ground up without even mentioning a specific library as the foundation. This would obviously be a way more complex XEP, as all the cryptographic operations and primitives which are currently abstracted and hidden away behind the Signal protocol, would have to be written down in that XEP. However, recently the IETF announced that work is done to create MLS (Message Layer Security), which does exactly that. It specifies a completely open version of the double ratchet algorithm along with infrastructure to share key material and so on. I’m not sure whether this is a coincidence, or if some of those who proposed OMEMO-NEXT are directly involved with the development of MLS. We’ll see, when MLS is ready and whether it will compete against OMEMO. I’d really love to see a cross-protocol encryption algorithm btw ;) #bridges #federateEverything

Now lets talk about the biggest problem of OMEMO. Currently the XEP does not have an active “legal guardian”. The author has been inactive for an extended period of time, ignoring requests for comments, causing a total halt in the development of the standard (making changes to the XEP needs the authors approval). Things like specifying a new wire protocol are possible and reasonably easy to do. However not having changes written down in the XEP makes it nearly impossible to make coordinated changes. I’m sure there is a ton of potential for OMEMO and it is sad to see its (protocol-) development having come to a halt.

I’m sure that many of its current issues can be addressed by changes to the XEP. This is what I think needs to be done to OMEMO to make it more usable:

  • Specify a new wire protocol: This could make OMEMO accesible for commercial applications and allow independent implementations -> broader deployment
  • Specify a general payload encryption scheme: This could benefit other encryption protocols as well and would make it possible to apply end-to-end encryption to a wider variety of use cases.
  • Reuse the payload encryption scheme in OMEMO: Utilize OMEMO for things besides body encryption.
  • Specify a way to sign device lists with “persistent key” algorithms like OpenPGP: This could simplify trust management.
  • Specify a way to backup the identity key: This could reduce the identity key chaos, since the key could be reused on new devices/installations. However clients would have to make it clear to the user, not to use the same key on multiple devices.
This have been my thoughts about OMEMOs current state. What do you think about it?
Happy Hacking!

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