Secure Encryption in Java

Last time I
wrote about cryptography, I outlined Apache Shiro crypto API and shown how to use its two symmetric ciphers. I also wrote that "You do not need more to encrypt and decrypt sensitive data in your applications."

learned more about cryptography and found out that you need to know more. What I wrote is true to some extend, but unless you are careful your sensitive data may not be secure against all attackers.

Out of the box Shiro provides Blowfish-CBC and AES-CBC encryption methods and I recommended to use them. Both have been designed to protect against passive eavesdropping attacker and are good at it. Unfortunately, real attackers are more sophisticated and may break the system based on them.

Notice the "may". The attacker can succeed only if attacked system cooperates with him at least little bit. If you want to use these ciphers, you have to know how to write the system securely. Of course, the other option is to use stronger cipher and avoid the problem completely.

Few needed theoretical
terms and concepts are explained in the first chapter. Second chapter shows how to encrypt data in a
more secure way. Then we describe how Blowfish-CBC and AES-CBC
work and show two possible
attacks on them. Finally, the end of the post contains references to
other resources


We start with a few theoretical concepts. If you do not want to read it, go directly to the chapter with
the solution.

First important thing to describe is the difference between a passive and an active attacker. Then we explain what are block ciphers and what is an authenticated encryption. Last two subchapters list selected vulnerable and selected secure ciphers.

Active vs Passive Attacker

Eavesdropping only attacker is mostly passive. He is able to read encrypted communication, but is unable to modify it or send new ciphertexts to communicating applications. He is not able to influence the communication, he only listens to it. His passivity has only one exception: the attacker is able to give unencrypted information to one of communicating parties and obtain ciphertext with that exact information.

Real-world attackers are often more active. They compose their own messages and send them to communicating application. The application then assumes that those messages are encrypted, so it tries to decrypt them. The attacker observes its reaction (returned error code, time needed to answer and so on), and learn more about the cipher.

If he is lucky, he may use obtained knowledge to break the cipher or to plant false information.

Block Ciphers

Block ciphers are able to encrypt only short messages. For example, AES can encrypt only 16 bytes long messages and Blowfish is able to encrypt only 8 bytes long messages.

Longer messages are split into blocks. Each block is combined with previously encrypted blocks and passed to the block cipher. Block combining is called an operation mode and there are multiple secure ways how to do it.

Two active attacks discussed in this post are attacks on CBC operation mode. Block ciphers themselves are secure.

Authenticated Encryption

Authenticated encryption rejects any modified ciphertext as invalid. It is not possible to take encrypted data, modify them and end up with valid ciphertext. This property is also called a ciphertext integrity.

The cipher checks integrity first and rejects all modified messages the same way. As the attacker can not pass through the integrity check, he gains nothing from sending new messages to the application.

Authentication and ciphertext integrity are usually, but not always, provided by the operation mode.

Vulnerable Ciphers

Any cipher that does not provide ciphertext integrity or authenticated encryption is probably vulnerable to some active attack. It does not matter which encryption library is used. Encryption algorithms are defined in standards and amount to the same thing regardless of the used library.

Otherwise said, if it is possible to create valid ciphertext without knowing the secret key, then it is likely that some active attack exists, even if it is not know yet.

This post describes two attacks CBC operation mode. Once you understand both these attacks and differences between passive and active attacker, you should be able to come up with similar attacks on CFB, CTR, OFB or other non-authenticated cipher modes.

Secure Ciphers

Authenticated encryptions are secure against active attackers. Most common operation modes that provide also authentication are:

  • GCM
  • EAX
  • CCM

Replace CBC with one of these modes (e.g. AES-EAX) and you have a cipher secure against an active attacker.

Of course, secure against an active attacker does not mean that the cipher has no other real-world limitation. For example, most ciphers are safe only if the user changes the key after too much data have been encrypted. If you are serious about data encryption, you should study and know those limitations.

Authenticated Encryption with Shiro

This chapter shows how to use an authenticated encryption in Java. For those who skipped the
theory, authenticated encryption protects against data tampering. Nobody without the secret key will be able to modify an encrypted message and an active attack on such cipher is impossible.

Apache Shiro does not implement its own encryption algorithms. It delegates all work to Java Cryptography Extension (JCE) which is available in each Java runtime. Shiro ‘only’ provides easy to use API and secure defaults.

Therefore, we have to do two things:

  • install authenticated operation modes into Java Cryptography Extension,
  • integrate Shiro with new authenticated operation modes.

Install Authenticated Operation Modes

Java Cryptography Extension is an extensible API. All classes and algorithms are created by providers and new provider can be installed into the system at any time. The provider can be either:

  • installed into java runtime and be available to all java applications,
  • distributed and initialized together with the application.

We will show how to add
Bouncy Castle into the project. Bouncy Castle is a provider distributed under the MIT license and contains both EAX and GCM operation modes.

Bouncy Castle distributes multiple jar files, each optimized for different java version. As our demo project uses Java 6, we have to use
bcprov-jdk16 library. Add maven dependency into pom.xml:

<dependency>  <groupId>org.bouncycastle</groupId>  <artifactId>bcprov-jdk16</artifactId>  <version>1.46</version></dependency>

Once the library is present, you have to install its provider into java security system. Run following method at the application start-up:

private BouncyCastleProvider installBouncyCastle() {  BouncyCastleProvider provider = new BouncyCastleProvider();  Security.addProvider(provider);  return provider;}

Bouncy Castle is now installed and both authenticated operation modes are available.

Integrate with Shiro

Shiro cryptography package is basically an easy to use facade over JCE. It configures JCE objects to use secure defaults and adds thread safety to it.

DefaultBlockCipherService class to take advantage of these features. Most of configuration is done by that class, but we still have to specify three things:

  • block cipher name and parameters,
  • operation mode,
  • padding.

Block cipher name is specified in constructor parameter. We will use AES, because it requires no additional configuration. Neither GCM nor CCM require padding, so we have to specify the padding

New cipher service:

class GCMCipherService extends DefaultBlockCipherService {  private static final String ALGORITHM_NAME = "AES";  public GCMCipherService() {    super(ALGORITHM_NAME);    setMode(OperationMode.GCM);    setPaddingScheme(PaddingScheme.NONE);  }}

That is it. You may use the new authenticating cipher as
any other Shiro cipher service.

Test Case

We created a simple test case to demonstrate that the integrity check works. It encrypts a message and changes third byte of its ciphertext. If the cipher provides an authentication, then an attempt to decrypt modified ciphertext results in runtime exception:

@Testpublic void testGCMAuthentication() {  String message = "secret message";  GCMCipherService gcmCipher = new GCMCipherService();  assertIngetrityCheck(message, gcmCipher);}private void assertIngetrityCheck(String message, DefaultBlockCipherService cipher) {  byte[] key = cipher.generateNewKey().getEncoded();  byte[] messageBytes = CodecSupport.toBytes(message);  ByteSource encrypt = cipher.encrypt(messageBytes, key);  // change the ciphertext  encrypt.getBytes()[3] = 0;  try {    // it should be impossible to decrypt changed ciphertext    cipher.decrypt(encrypt.getBytes(), key).getBytes();  } catch (Exception ex) {    return;  }  fail("It should not be possible to decrypt changed ciphertext.");}

Note on Java 7

According to
documentation, Java 7 supports two authenticated operation modes: CCM and GCM. Theoretically, you should not need a third party cryptography provider.

Unfortunately, Oracle could not provide a full implementation of these modes in first JDK 7 release. They would
like to add it in an update release, so the situation may change in the future. Oracle bug database contains two

Java 1.7.0_01 still does not have them.

Cipher Block Chaining (CBC)

The last thing we needed before we can describe promised attacks is cipher block chaining (CBC) operation mode. This operation mode is sufficiently secure against passive attacker, reasonably fast and easy to implement.

Unfortunately, it also is vulnerable to active attacks.


CBC is used to encrypt a long message with block cipher. Block ciphers are able to encrypt only short blocks of data, so it starts by splitting the message into short blocks.

First and last blocks are special cases. We will explain what to do with them in following subchapters. For now, assume that the message beginning is already encrypted and its i-th block
mi corresponds to ciphertext

Encrypt the next message block in two steps:

  • xor the block with ciphertext of the previous block (e.g. mi⊕ci-1),
  • encrypt the result with a block cipher (e.g. Blowfish(key, mi⊕ci-1)).

Example: suppose that the secret message has three blocks and we are trying to encrypt it with Blowfish-CBC. The first block is already encrypted and its ciphertext is
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. The second block is a byte array
1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0.

Step 1: xor the first block ciphertext with the second block:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ⊕ 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0 = 0, 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8

Step 2: encrypt the result with blowfish algorithm:

Blowfish(secret_key, {0, 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8})

First Block – Initialization Vector

First block has no previous block to be combined with. Therefore, we will generate a block of random data called initialization vector. The initialization vector is used as a very first block of data. It is xor-ed with the first message block and the result is encrypted with a block cipher.

Initialization vector is send unencrypted as a first block of the ciphertext. The recipient would be unable to decrypt the ciphertext without it and there is no reason to keep it secret.

Example: suppose that the secret message has three blocks and we are trying to encrypt it with Blowfish-CBC. The first block is a byte array
1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1.

Step 1: generate random initialization vector:

1, 8, 2, 7, 3, 6, 4, 5

Step 2: xor the first block with the initialization vector:

1, 8, 2, 7, 3, 6, 4, 5 ⊕ 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1 = 0, 9, 3, 6, 2, 7, 5, 4

Step 3: encrypt the result with blowfish algorithm:

Blowfish(secret_key, {0, 9, 3, 6, 2, 7, 5, 4})

Step 4: combine initialization vector and ciphertext. If the result of Blowfish function in previous step is
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, then the ciphertext is:

1, 8, 2, 7, 3, 6, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Last Block – Padding

Block ciphers are able to encrypt messages of fixed length and last block is often shorter than that. As the cipher is unable to encrypt it, we need a way to add additional bytes to the end of the message.

Shiro uses PKCS#5 padding by default. Each its byte is equal to the length of the padding:

  • If the last block is too short, count how many bytes are missing and fill missing bytes with that number.
  • If the last block has the right size, treat the message as if it would be missing whole block. Add a new padding block to it. Each its byte will be equal to the block size.

Example 1: suppose that the secret message has three blocks and we are trying to encrypt it with Blowfish-CBC. The last block is byte array
1, 1, 1, 1. Padded block:

1, 1, 1, 1, 4, 4, 4, 4

Example 2: suppose that the secret message has three blocks and we are trying to encrypt it with Blowfish-CBC. The last block is byte array
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Last block and padding:

8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8


Finally, we are ready to show two different attacks on CBC based ciphers and prove that the problem is real. Our
sample project contains tests cases for both attacks on both AES-CBC and Blowfish-CBC ciphers.

First subchapter shows how to change the beginning of encrypted text to any message of our choice. Second subchapter explains how to decrypt the ciphertext.

Data Tampering

Data tampering attack is possible only if the attacker already
knows the content of encrypted message. Such attacker can change first message block to whatever he wishes to.

In particular, it is possible to:

  • change first 16 bytes of AES-CBC encrypted message,
  • change first 8 bytes of Blowfish-CBC encrypted message.

Potential Danger

Whether this type of attack is dangerous depends a lot on circumstances.

If you use the cipher to send password through network, then data tampering is not so dangerous. At worst, a legitimate user will get login denied. Similarly, if your encrypted data are stored on some read-only storage, then you do not have to worry about data tampering.

However, if you are sending bank order through the network, data tampering is a real threat. If someone changes the message
Pay Mark 100$ into
Pay Tom 9999$, Tom will get 9999$ he should not get.

The Attack

Encrypted message has three parts:

  • random initial vector,
  • first block of ciphertext,
  • the rest of the message.

The recipient decrypts the first block of ciphertext with the block cipher. This gives him
message block⊕initial vector. To get the message, he has to xor this value with the initial vector:

message block ⊕ initial vector ⊕ initial vector = message block

The initial vector is transferred together with the message and an active attacker can change it. If the attacker replaces the original initial vector with
another iv, then the recipient will decrypt another message:

message block ⊕ initial vector ⊕ another iv = another message

Rearrange the previous equation and you get:

another iv = message block ⊕ initial vector ⊕ another message

If the attacker knows both initial vector and content of the encrypted message, then he can modify the message to anything he wants. All he has to do is to xor the original initial vector with both known message content and desired message.

Whoever decrypts the modified ciphertext will obtain a modified message instead of the original one.

Test Case

We created a simple test case that demonstrate this attack on a message encrypted with AES-CBC.

Imagine that an attacker captured an encrypted email and somehow knows what is in it:

//original messageprivate static final String EMAIL = "Hi,\n" +  "send Martin all requested money please.\n\n" +  "With Regards, \n" +  "Accounting\n";

The attacker can change only first 16 bytes of the message, so he decides to redirect the money to Andrea:

//changed messageprivate static final String MODIFICATION = "Hi,\n" +  "give Andrea all requested money please.\n\n" +  "With Regards, \n" +  "Accounting\n";

Following test case encrypts the message and modifies the ciphertext. Modified ciphertext is decrypted and compared to the expected message:

@Testpublic void testModifiedMessage_AES() {  //create cipher and the secret key   StringCipherService cipher =       new StringCipherService(new AesCipherService());  byte[] key = cipher.generateNewKey();  //encrypt the message  byte[] ciphertext = cipher.encrypt(EMAIL, key);  //attack: modify the encrypted message  for (int i = 0; i < 16; i++) {    ciphertext[i] = (byte)(ciphertext[i] ^         MODIFICATION.getBytes()[i] ^         EMAIL.getBytes()[i]);  }  //decrypt and verify  String result = cipher.decrypt(ciphertext, key);  assertEquals(MODIFICATION, result);}

Of course, similar attack can be done on Blowfish-CBC. We can change only first 8 bytes this time:

@Testpublic void testModifiedMessage_Blowfish() {  String email = "Pay 100 dollars to them, but nothing more. Accounting\n";    StringCipherService cipher =     new StringCipherService(new BlowfishCipherService());  byte[] key = cipher.generateNewKey();  byte[] ciphertext = cipher.encrypt(email, key);  String modified = "Pay 900 dollars to them, but nothing more. Accounting\n";    for (int i = 0; i < 8; i++) {    ciphertext[i] = (byte)(ciphertext[i] ^         modified.getBytes()[i] ^         email.getBytes()[i]);  }  String result = cipher.decrypt(ciphertext, key);  assertEquals(modified, result);}

Decrypt the Cipher

The second attack allows an attacker to decrypt the secret message. The attack is possible only if the application that decrypts secret messages cooperates with the attacker.

Padding Oracle

The attacker creates a lot of fake ciphertexts and sends them to the recipient. As he tries to decrypt those messages, one of these things will happen:

  • the ciphertext decrypts to meaningless garbage,
  • modified message will not be valid ciphertext at all.

If the application behaves the same way in both cases, then everything is ok. If it behaves differently, then the attacker is able to decrypt the ciphertext. There is only one way how the CBC based ciphertext can be incorrect – if the padding is wrong.

For example, if ciphertext contains an encrypted password, the vulnerable server may respond with "login denied" in case of wrong decrypted password and with runtime exception in case of invalid ciphertext. If this is the case, then the attacker can recover the password.

General Idea

Each fake message has two parts: a fake initial vector and one message block. Both are sent to the server. If it answers "padding right", then we know that:

message ⊕ original iv ⊕ fake iv = valid padding

The only unknown variable in the above equation is the message. The
original iv is previous ciphertext block,
fake iv was created by us and the valid padding is one of
1 or
2, 2 or
3, 3, 3 or
... or
8, 8, ..., 8 and so on.

Therefore, we can calculate the block content as:

message = valid padding ⊕ original iv ⊕ fake iv 


Start by recovering the last block byte. Each fake initial vectors starts with a lot of 0 and ends with a different last byte. This way, we can be almost sure that the server answers "padding right" only on a message that ends with 1. Use the previous chapter equation to calculate the last block byte.

Getting the second last byte of the message is very similar. The only difference is that we have to craft a ciphertext that decrypts into the second shortest padding
2, 2. The last byte of the message is already known, so enforcing 2 as the last value is easy. The beginning of the initial vector is unimportant and set that to 0.

Then we try all possible values for the second last byte of the initial vector. Once the server answers "padding right", we can get the second last message byte from the same formula as before:
original iv ⊕ fake iv ⊕ 2.

We calculate third last message byte out of fake message with padding
3, 3, 3; fourth out of message with padding
4, 4, 4, 4; and so on until the whole block is decrypted.

Test Case

The vulnerable server is simulated with a
PaddingOraculum class. Each instance of this class generates a random secret key and keeps it private. It exposes only two public methods:

  • byte[] encrypt(String message) – encrypts a string with secret key,
  • boolean verifyPadding(byte[] ciphertext) – returns whether the padding is right.

The padding oraculum attack is implemented in
decryptLastBlock method. The method decrypts last block of encrypted message:

private String decryptLastBlock(PaddingOraculum oraculum, byte[] ciphertext) {  // extract relevant part of the ciphertext  byte[] ivAndBlock = getLastTwoBlocks(ciphertext,       oraculum.getBlockSize());  // modified initial vector  byte[] ivMod = new byte[oraculum.getBlockSize()];  Arrays.fill(ivMod, (byte) 0);  // Start with last byte of the last block and   // continue to the first byte.  for (int i = oraculum.getBlockSize()-1; i >= 0; i--) {    // add padding to the initial vector        int expectedPadding = oraculum.getBlockSize() - i;    xorPad(ivMod, expectedPadding);    // loop through possible values of ivModification[i]    for (ivMod[i] =  -128; ivMod[i] <  127; ivMod[i]++) {      // create fake message and verify its padding      byte[] modifiedCiphertext = replaceBeginning(ivAndBlock, ivMod);      if (oraculum.verifyPadding(modifiedCiphertext)) {        // we can stop looping        // the ivModification[i] =        //    = solution ^ expectedPadding ^ ivAndBlock[i]        break;      }    }    // remove the padding from the initial vector    xorPad(ivMod, expectedPadding);  }  // modified initial vector now contains the solution xor   // original initial vector  String result = "";  for (int i = 0; i < ivMod.length; i++) {    ivMod[i] = (byte) (ivMod[i] ^ ivAndBlock[i]);    result += (char) ivMod[i];  }  return result;}

Our sample project contains two
test cases. One encrypts message with AES-CBC and then uses the padding oraculum to the last block of the ciphertext. The other do the same thing with Blowfish-CBC.

Decrypt Blowfish-CBC test case:

@Testpublic void testPaddingOracle_Blowfish() {  String message = "secret message!";  PaddingOraculum oraculum = new PaddingOraculum(      new BlowfishCipherService());  //Oraculum encrypts the message with a secret key.  byte[] ciphertext = oraculum.encrypt(message);  //use oraculum to decrypt the message  String result = decryptLastBlock(oraculum, ciphertext);    //the original message had padding 1  assertEquals("essage!"+(char)1, result);}


Additional related resources:


No cipher provides absolute safety against all possible attacks. Instead, they provide protection only against well defined classes of attacks. Ciphers are secure only as long as the potential threat to the system matches the cipher strength.

Protection against an active attack can be done in two ways:

  • Make an active attack impossible by design.
  • Use an authenticated encryption.

Using an authenticated encryption is arguably easier and should be the preferred option. Ruling out the active attacker is error prone and more risky.

All code sample used in this post are available
on Github.

Secure Encryption in Java from our
JCG partner Maria Jurcovicova at the
This is Stuff blog.

Source :

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