Trust on first use

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Trust on first use (TOFU), or trust upon first use (TUFU), is a security model used by client software which needs to establish a trust relationship with an unknown or not-yet-trusted endpoint. In a TOFU model, the client will try to look up the endpoint's identifier, usually some kind of public key, in its local trust database. If no identifier exists yet for the endpoint, the client software will either prompt the user to determine if the client should trust the identifier or it will simply trust the identifier which was given and record the trust relationship into its trust database. If a different identifier is received in subsequent connections to the endpoint the client software will consider it to be untrusted.

The TOFU approach can be used when connecting to arbitrary or unknown endpoints which do not have a trusted third party such as a certificate authority. For example, the SSH protocol is designed to issue a prompt the first time the client connects to an unknown or not-yet-trusted endpoint. Other implementations of TOFU can be found in HTTP Public Key Pinning in which browsers will always accept the first public key returned by the server and with HTTP Strict Transport Security in which browsers will obey the redirection rule for the duration of 'age' directive.

Model strengths and weaknesses[edit]

The single largest strength of any TOFU-style model is that a human being must initially validate every interaction. A common application of this model is the use of ssh-rpc 'bot' users between computers, whereby public keys are distributed to a set of computers for automated access from centralized hosts. The TOFU aspect of this application forces a sysadmin (or other trusted user) to validate the remote server's identity upon first connection.

The largest weakness of any TOFU-style model is that a human being must initially validate every interaction, which does not scale infinitely, and can quickly scale beyond the capabilities of any group of people using and managing computers with a need for trusted and secure protocols. People tend to approve without verification, not to mention the increased surface area for human error.

A compromise between security and scalability of use has been proposed by Daniel Gultsch the developer of the XMPP client Conversations. It is call Blind Trust Before Verification,[1] it consists in not checking the key on first contact but to check after the user made a manual check and the key changed.

First known use of the term[edit]

The first known formal use of the term TOFU or TUFU was by CMU researchers Dan Wendlandt, David Andersen, and Adrian Perrig in their research paper "Perspectives: Improving SSH-Style Host Authentication With Multi-Path Probing" published in 2008 at the Usenix Annual Technical Conference.[2]

Moxie Marlinspike mentioned Perspectives and the term TOFU the DEF CON 18 proceedings, with reference to comments made by Dan Kaminsky, during the panel discussion "An Open Letter, A Call to Action". An audience suggestion was raised implying the superiority of the SSH Public key infrastructure (PKI) model, over the SSL/TLS PKI model - whereby Moxie replied:

Anonymous: ", if we dislike the certificate model in the (tls) PKI, but we like, say, the SSH PKI, which seems to work fairly well, basically the fundamental thing is: if I give my data to someone, I trust them with the data. So I should be remembering their certificate. If someone else comes in with a different certificate, signed by a different authority, I still don't trust them. And if we did it that way, then that would solve a lot of the problems- it would solve the problems of rogue CAs, to some extent, it wouldn't help you with the initial bootstrapping but the initial bootstrapping would use the initial model, and then for continued interaction with the site you would use the ssh model which would allow you continued strength beyond what we have now. So the model we have now can be continued to be re-used, for only the initial acceptance. So why don't we do this?"

Dan: "So, I'm a former SSH developer, and let me walk very quickly, every time there's an error in the ssh key generation, the user is asked, 'please type yes to trusting this new key', or, 'please go into your known hosts file and delete that value', and every last time they do it, because it's always the fault of a server misconfiguration. The SSH model is cool, it don't scale".

Moxie: "And I would just add, what you're talking about is called 'Trust on First Use', or 'tofu', and there's a project that I'm involved in called perspectives, that tries to leverage that to be less confusing than the pure SSH model, and I think it's a really great project and you should check it out if you're interested in alternatives to the CA system."

Related work on the subject[edit]

  • Work toward creating visual representations of server certificate 'fingerprint' hashes has been implemented into OpenSSH in the form of ASCII Art. The intention is for users to visually recognize a 'graphical' image, instead of a long string of letters and numbers. The original research paper was written by Adrian Perring and Dawn Song, at the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Science Department.
  • The originator of the 'TUFU' acronym was describing the inspiration for the 'Perspectives Firefox Plug In', which was designed to strengthen the SSL/TLS PKI model by contacting network notaries whenever your browser connects an HTTPS website

Prior work[edit]

The topics of trust, validation, non-repudiation are fundamental to all work in the field of cryptography and digital security.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel Gultsch (November 20, 2016). "Blind Trust Before Verification". Retrieved January 19, 2017.
  2. ^

External links[edit]