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Chapter: Cryptography and Network Security Principles and Practice - One Symmetric Ciphers - Block Cipher Operation

Counter Mode

Although interest in the counter (CTR) mode has increased recently with applica- tions to ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) network security and IP sec (IP security), this mode was proposed early on (e.g., [DIFF79]).


Although interest in the counter (CTR) mode has increased recently with applica- tions to ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) network security and IP sec (IP security), this mode was proposed early on (e.g., [DIFF79]).

Figure 6.7 depicts the CTR mode. A counter equal to the plaintext block size is used. The only requirement stated in SP 800-38A is that the counter value must be

different for each plaintext block that is encrypted. Typically, the counter is initialized to some value and then incremented by 1 for each subsequent block (modulo 2b, where b is the block size). For encryption, the counter is encrypted and then XORed with the plaintext block to produce the ciphertext block; there is no chaining. For decryption, the same sequence of counter values is used, with each encrypted counter XORed with a ciphertext block to recover the corresponding plaintext block. Thus, the initial counter value must be made available for decryption. Given a sequence of counters T1, T2, ......., TN, we can define CTR mode as follows.

For the last plaintext block, which may be a partial block of u bits, the most sig- nificant u bits of the last output block are used for the XOR operation; the remaining b -u bits are discarded. Unlike the ECB, CBC, and CFB modes, we do not need to use padding because of the structure of the CTR mode.

As with the OFB mode, the initial counter value must be a nonce; that is, T1 must be different for all of the messages encrypted using the same key. Further, all Ti values across all messages must be unique. If, contrary to this requirement, a counter value is used multiple times, then the confidentiality of all of the plaintext blocks corresponding to that counter value may be compromised. In particular, if any plain- text block that is encrypted using a given counter value is known, then the output of the encryption function can be determined easily from the associated ciphertext block. This output allows any other plaintext blocks that are encrypted using the same counter value to be easily recovered from their associated ciphertext blocks.

One way to ensure the uniqueness of counter values is to continue to incre- ment the counter value by 1 across messages. That is, the first counter value of the each message is one more than the last counter value of the preceding message.

[LIPM00] lists the following advantages of CTR mode.


                           Hardware efficiency: Unlike the three chaining modes, encryption (or decryption) in CTR mode can be done in parallel on multiple blocks of plain- text or ciphertext. For the chaining modes, the algorithm must complete the computation on one block before beginning on the next block. This limits the maximum throughput of the algorithm to the reciprocal of the time for one execution of block encryption or decryption. In CTR mode, the throughput is only limited by the amount of parallelism that is achieved.

                           Software efficiency: Similarly, because of the opportunities for parallel execu- tion in CTR mode, processors that support parallel features, such as aggressive pipelining, multiple instruction dispatch per clock cycle, a large number of reg- isters, and SIMD instructions, can be effectively utilized.

                           Preprocessing: The execution of the underlying encryption algorithm does not depend on input of the plaintext or ciphertext. Therefore, if sufficient memory is available and security is maintained, preprocessing can be used to prepare the output of the encryption boxes that feed into the XOR functions, as in Figure 6.7. When the plaintext or ciphertext input is presented, then the only computation is a series of XORs. Such a strategy greatly enhances throughput.

                           Random access: The ith block of plaintext or ciphertext can be processed in random-access fashion. With the chaining modes, block Ci cannot be com- puted until the i – 1 prior block are computed. There may be applications in which a ciphertext is stored and it is desired to decrypt just one block; for such applications, the random access feature is attractive.

                           Provable security: It can be shown that CTR is at least as secure as the other modes discussed in this section.

                           Simplicity: Unlike ECB and CBC modes, CTR mode requires only the imple- mentation of the encryption algorithm and not the decryption algorithm. This matters most when the decryption algorithm differs substantially from the encryption algorithm, as it does for AES. In addition, the decryption key scheduling need not be implemented.


Note that, with the exception of ECB, all of the NIST-approved block cipher modes of operation involve feedback. This is clearly seen in Figure 6.8. To highlight the feedback mechanism, it is useful to think of the encryption function as taking input from a input register whose length equals the encryption block length and with output stored in an output register. The input register is updated one block at a time by the feedback mechanism. After each update, the encryption algorithm is executed, producing a result in the output register. Meanwhile, a block of plaintext is accessed. Note that both OFB and CTR produce output that is independent of both the plaintext and the ciphertext. Thus, they are natural candidates for stream ciphers that encrypt plaintext by XOR one full block at a time.

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