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Chapter: Cryptography and Network Security Principles and Practice : Asymmetric Ciphers : Other Public-Key Cryptosystems

Elliptic Curve Arithmetic

The principal attraction of ECC, compared to RSA, is that it appears to offer equal security for a far smaller key size, thereby reducing processing overhead.


Most of the products and standards that use public-key cryptography for encryp- tion and digital signatures use RSA. As we have seen, the key length for secure RSA use has increased over recent years, and this has put a heavier processing load on applications using RSA. This burden has ramifications, especially for electronic commerce sites that conduct large numbers of secure transactions. A   competing system challenges RSA: elliptic curve cryptography (ECC). ECC is showing up in standardization efforts, including the IEEE P1363 Standard for Public-Key Cryptography.

The principal attraction of ECC, compared to RSA, is that it appears to offer equal security for a far smaller key size, thereby reducing processing overhead. On the other hand, although the theory of ECC has been around for some time, it is only recently that products have begun to appear and that there has been sustained cryptanalytic interest in probing for weaknesses. Accordingly, the confidence level in ECC is not yet as high as that in RSA.

ECC is fundamentally more difficult to explain than either RSA or Diffie- Hellman, and a full mathematical description is beyond the scope of this book. This section and the next give some background on elliptic curves and ECC. We begin with a brief review of the concept of abelian group. Next, we examine the concept of elliptic curves defined over the real numbers. This is followed by a look at elliptic curves defined over finite fields. Finally, we are able to examine elliptic curve ciphers.

The reader may wish to review the material on finite fields in Chapter 4 before proceeding.

Abelian Groups

A number of public-key ciphers are based on the use of an abelian group. For example, Diffie-Hellman key exchange involves multiplying pairs of nonzero inte- gers modulo a prime number q. Keys are generated by exponentiation over the group, with exponentiation defined as  repeated multiplication. For  example,  

determine k given a and ak; this is the discrete logarithm problem.

For elliptic curve cryptography, an operation over elliptic curves, called addi- tion, is used. Multiplication is defined by repeated addition. For example,

where the addition is performed over an elliptic curve. Cryptanalysis involves determining k given a and (a * k).

An elliptic curve is defined by an equation in two variables with coefficients. For cryptography, the variables and coefficients are restricted to elements in a finite field, which results in the definition of a finite abelian group. Before looking at this, we first look at elliptic curves in which the variables and coefficients are real numbers. This case is perhaps easier to visualize.


Elliptic Curves over Real Numbers

Elliptic curves are not ellipses. They are so named because they are described by cubic equations, similar to those used for calculating the circumference of an ellipse. In general, cubic equations for elliptic curves take the following form, known as a Weierstrass equation:

y+ axy  + by  = x+ cx+ dx  +  e

where a, b, c, d, e are real numbers and x and y take on values in the real numbers.4 For our purpose, it is sufficient to limit ourselves to equations of the form

Such equations are said to be cubic, or of degree 3, because the highest expo- nent they contain is a 3. Also included in the definition of an elliptic curve is a single element denoted O and called the point at infinity or the zero point, which we discuss subsequently. To plot such a curve, we need to compute

For given values of a and b, the plot consists of positive and negative values of y for each value of x. Thus, each curve is symmetric about y = 0. Figure 10.4 shows two examples of elliptic curves. As you can see, the formula sometimes produces weird- looking curves.

Now, consider the set of points E(a, b) consisting of all of the points (x, y) that satisfy Equation (10.1) together with the element O. Using a different value of the pair (a, b) results in a different set E(a, b). Using this terminology, the two curves in Figure 10.4 depict the sets E(-1, 0) and E(1, 1),   respectively.

GEOMETRIC DESCRIPTION OF ADDITION It can be shown that a group can be defined based on the set E(a, b) for specific values of a and b in Equation (10.1), provided  the following condition is met:

To define the group, we must define an operation, called addition and denoted by +, for the set E(a, b), where a and b satisfy Equation (10.2). In geometric terms, the rules for addition can be stated as follows: If three points on an elliptic curve lie on a straight line, their sum is O. From this definition, we can define the rules of addi- tion over an elliptic curve.

1.      O serves as the additive identity. Thus O = -O; for any point P on the elliptic curve, P + O = P. In what follows, we assume P != O and != O.

The negative of a point P is the point with the same x coordinate but the negative of the y coordinate; that is, if P = (x, y), then -P = (x, -y). Note that these two points can be joined by a vertical line. Note that P + (-P) = P - P = O.

1.         To add two points P and Q with different x coordinates, draw a straight line between them and find the third point of intersection R. It is easily seen that there is a unique point R that is the point of intersection (unless the line is tan- gent to the curve at either P or Q, in which case we take R = P or R = Q, respectively). To form a group structure, we need to define addition on these three points: P + Q = -R. That is, we define P + Q to be the mirror image (with respect to the x axis) of the third point of intersection. Figure 10.4 illustrates this construction.

2.         The geometric interpretation of the preceding item also applies to two points, P and -P, with the same x coordinate. The points are joined by a vertical line, which can be viewed as also intersecting the curve at the infinity point. We there- fore have P + (-P) = O, which is consistent with item (2).

3.         To double a point Q, draw the tangent line and find the other point of inter- section S. Then + = 2= -S.

With the preceding list of rules, it can be shown that the set E(a, b) is an abelian group.


ALGEBRAIC DESCRIPTION OF ADDITION In this subsection, we present some results that enable calculation of additions over elliptic curves.5 For two distinct points,  P = (xP , yP) and Q = (xQ, yQ), that are not negatives of each other, the slope of the line l that joins them is Δ = (yQ - yP)>(xQ - xP) . There is exactly one other point where l intersects the elliptic curve, and that is the negative of the sum of P and Q.

After some algebraic manipulation, we can express the sum R = P + Q as

Elliptic Curves over Zp

Elliptic curve cryptography makes use of elliptic curves in which the variables and coefficients are all restricted to elements of a finite field. Two families of elliptic curves are used in cryptographic applications: prime curves over Zp and  binary

curves over GF(2m). For a prime curve over Zp, we use a cubic equation in which the

variables and coefficients all take on values in the set of integers from 0 through

p - 1 and in which calculations are performed modulo p. For a binary curve defined over GF(2m), the variables and coefficients all take on values in GF(2m) and in cal- culations are performed over GF(2m). [FERN99] points out that prime curves are best for software applications, because the extended bit-fiddling operations needed by binary curves are not required; and that binary curves are best for hardware applications, where it takes remarkably few logic gates to create a powerful, fast cryptosystem. We examine these two families in this section and the next.

There is no obvious geometric interpretation of elliptic curve arithmetic over finite fields. The algebraic interpretation used for elliptic curve arithmetic over real numbers does readily carry over, and this is the approach we take.

For elliptic curves over Zp, as with real numbers, we limit ourselves to equa- tions of the form of Equation (10.1), but in this case with coefficients and variables limited to Zp:

Now consider the set Ep(a, b) consisting of all pairs of integers (x, y) that sat- isfy Equation (10.5), together with a point at infinity O. The coefficients a and b and the variables x and y are all elements of   Zp.

For  example, let  23  and consider the elliptic curve  yx+ 1. In

this case, a = b = 1. Note that this equation is the same as that of Figure 10.4b. The figure shows a continuous curve with all of the real points that satisfy the equation. For the set E23(1, 1), we are only interested in the nonnegative integers in the quadrant from (0, 0) through (- 1, - 1) that satisfy the equation    mod

p. Table 10.1 lists the points (other than O) that are part of E23(1, 1). Figure 10.5 plots the points of E23(1, 1); note that the points, with one exception, are symmetric about y = 11.5.

It can be shown that a finite abelian group can be defined based on the set Ep(a, b) provided that (x3 + ax + b) mod p has no repeated factors. This is equiva- lent to the condition

Note that Equation (10.6) has the same form as Equation (10.2).

The rules for addition over Ep(a, b), correspond to the algebraic technique described for elliptic curves defined over real numbers. For all points P, Q Î Ep(a, b):

The last step in the preceding equation involves taking the multiplicative inverse of 4 in Z23. This can be done using the extended Euclidean algorithm defined in Section 4.4. To confirm, note that (6  * 4)  mod 23  24 mod 23  = 1.

xR = (62 - 3 - 3) mod 23 = 30 mod 23 = 7

yR = (6(3 - 7) - 10) mod 23 = (-34) mod 23 = 12

and 2(7, 12).

For determining the security of various elliptic curve ciphers, it is of some inter- est to know the number of points in a finite abelian group defined over an elliptic curve. In the case of the finite group EP(a, b), the number of points N is bounded by

Note that the number of points in Ep(a, b) is approximately equal to the number of elements in Zp, namely p elements.

Elliptic Curves over GF(2m)

Recall from Chapter 4 that a finite field GF(2m) consists of 2m elements, together with addition and multiplication operations that can be defined over polynomials. For elliptic curves over GF(2m), we use a cubic equation in which the variables and coefficients all take on values in GF(2m) for some number m and in which calcula- tions are performed using the rules of arithmetic in GF(2m).

It turns out that the form of cubic equation appropriate for cryptographic appli- cations for elliptic curves is somewhat different for GF(2m) than for Zp. The form is

where it is understood that the variables x and y and the coefficients a and b are elements of GF(2m) and that calculations are performed in GF(2m).

Now consider the set E2m(a, b) consisting of all pairs of integers (x, y)  that satisfy Equation (10.7), together with a point at infinity O.

For example, let us use the finite field GF(24) with the irreducible polynomial f(xx1. This yields a generator g that satisfies f(g= 0 with a value of g= + 1 , or in binary, = 0010. We can develop the powers of g as follows.

Table 10.2 lists the points (other than O) that are part of E241g4, 12 . Figure 10.6 plots the points of E241g4, 12 .

It can be shown that a finite abelian group can be defined based on the set E2m(a, b), provided that b  !=  0. The rules for addition can be stated as follows. For all points P, Q Î E2m(a, b):

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