The Needham-Schroeder Protocol

Roger Needham and Michael Schroeder of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center published a paper in December of 1978 describing their framework for designing a secure network authentication system. The paper, entitled “Using Encryption for Authentication in Large Networks of Computers,” described two different protocols that could be implemented to provide a reliable, secure authentication service for a distributed network of computers. The first protocol described in the paper uses private key encryption, and it is this protocol that forms the basis of the Kerberos network authentication protocol.

Needham and Schroeder outlined several assumptions around which they designed their protocol. One assumption, the ability for a malicious attacker to capture packets in-transit on the network, modify them, and send packets of his own design, was described by the authors as an “extreme view,” yet now is regarded as a routine requirement for any secure network protocol. Designing a protocol that is resistant to these types of attacks is difficult, and I’ll point out the specific design decisions that were made to thwart them as I discuss the protocol.

Other assumptions made by the authors, however, did not hold up as well in practice as they did on paper. The assumption that users’ secret keys are not readily available through an exhaustive search has not held up in the hostile environments in which Kerberos operates. No matter how much education you provide users, ...

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