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Ham Crypto

Amateur Radio

Amateur radio is about tinkering with the electromagnetic field. This may involve designing analog circuits to shape or unveil the modulation of signals, or sometimes using digital ones to recover information from the noise, or operating multi-hundred-watts transceivers to chat directly with the other side of the world, or lower-power ones to go just as far with Morse code, or even bouncing signals off the Moon. Also, lasers.

Yes, this is the 2005 picture from Wikipedia. No, things have not changed that much since. Physics still work the same.

Amateur radio operators, or “hams” for short, benefit from special privileges to this end. The radio spectrum is a crowded place; yet hams are allowed to transmit at various frequencies spread between 135,7 kHz and 250 GHz (not all bands are visible in the chart). Radio equipment is normally strictly regulated to limit interference and operations in unauthorized bands; yet hams are allowed to modify transmitters as they please, or even build and operate their own from scratch.

The allocation of the radio spectrum in the United States. The allocation is similar in other countries. You might notice there is not much free room. Click to enlarge.

It would be very tempting for a commercial operator, for instance, to make use of these privileges for their own benefit. To avoid this, there is one very important restriction: all communications must be done in the clear.

Code is Law

The exact wording from the international regulations is:

Transmissions between amateur stations of different countries shall not be encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning

Article 25, paragraph 2A from the Radio Regulations edited by the ITU (emphasis mine)
(yes, the website is very slow, which is a bit sad for the International Telecommunication Union)

Note: you might think that “of different countries” means that hams can encrypt their communications within a country, and that can actually be the case. However, the article is meant to bind countries to a common standard, not to restrict what happens within each country. In practice, each country will decide whether they want to allow it locally. And, in general, they don’t.

Encoding is the mapping of information to a particular representation. For instance, Morse Code and ASCII are encodings that map the letters of the alphabet to short and long signals, and to numbers, respectively. AM and FM are encodings that map analog signals to other analog signals, that is to say modulation.

Encoding is necessary for any form of communication, so it is of course allowed in general. What is forbidden is to represent information in a way that hides its meaning.

The ASCII encoding maps the uppercase and lowercase Latin letters, as well as the Arabic numerals, some punctuation marks, and control characters

Note that the wording does not say “cryptography”. This is intentional. Cryptography is just a set of techniques which can be used to hide information. It does not have to be this way, and this is not the only way to do so. This is about intent.

If you are doing Morse Code, SSB, FT8, or experimenting with your own super-advanced error-correction encoding that is meant to be usable by anyone, you would be in the spirit of the law. On the opposite, if you are hiding information in the low bits of a digital image, or using a custom protocol only you and your buddies know about, or using a proprietary protocol whose specification is not public, you are going against the spirit of the law.

Steganography is the idea of hiding information in plain sight

Note that the difference between “experimenting with a new protocol” and “designing a protocol restricted to just a few people” is slim. What matters is intent. A way to show good faith would be to include a link (using plain voice or Morse code) to an open source repository that anyone can easily install to decode the rest of the communication. To be clear, that’s not an original take.

What about cryptography? It should obviously be banned, right? The entire point of this discipline is to hide information.

My plant in the audience to ask a convenient question at a convenient time for my transition

Mostly, yes. But we are here to tinker, so let us see what this “mostly” entails.

Confidentiality and Authentication

The two main use cases of cryptography are confidentiality and authentication. Mostly everything else derives from these.

They are mostly used together. For instance, the most widespread implementation of cryptography is indubitably TLS, the protocol used to secure all communications of the Web. This the S in HTTPS. This is also what enabled online shopping, and grew the Web from a niche protocol to visit personal homepages to the societal backbone it is today.

The green padlock is telling you that the communications with the website are made secure using cryptography. It does not tell you that the website itself is trustworthy, however.

Nowadays, when you connect to a website, your Web browser will ensure two things.

  1. Communications are encrypted, so that no one snooping around can read them. That’s the “confidentiality” part.
  2. You are talking to the right website. Otherwise, it would be pretty easy to intercept all your communications and read them. This is how company proxies can monitor what you are doing. That’s the “authentication” part.

Note that authentication is necessary if you want confidentiality. Without at least some basic form of authentication (e.g. sharing a private key), encryption will only give confidentiality against passive attack models.

However, authentication on its own could definitely make sense. And the purpose of authentication is not to obscure the meaning. In particular, a cryptographic signature is a piece of data that anyone can decode and interpret. The information it contains is simply the fact that the associated message was indeed sent by its author, not by someone else.

Note: the usual rebuttal is this would allow an attacker to send the same message again. However, this is a well-known topic and easily solvable.

To be clear, I am not the first person to think about doing this. Nor the second:

But, why?

Why not? The purpose of amateur radio is to experiment with communication technology. Knowledge can be an end in itself. But still, having some ideas of what practical applications could look like can be motivating, so I list some here.

The Glider, the smallest moving pattern in Conway’s Game of Life

Remote Control. Since 2004, Radio Regulations include an exception to article 25.2A for the control of satellites. Indeed, going to orbit is hard¹, so you want to be able to service satellites remotely. But if anyone can remotely turn off your satellite, or make it dive into the atmosphere, you’ve got a problem. So you need some way to authenticate the commands. But you do not actually need encryption. This means that remote control over amateur radio is possible for things other than satellites. Remote base stations, or repeaters, for instance.

¹ In fact, low Earth orbit is halfway to anywhere in the Solar System.

Yes, people are actually building satellites, and actually sending them to space

Authenticated QSOs. Such schemes could be used to authenticate contacts, or QSOs, to prevent people from spoofing call signs. This could serve a similar purpose as PGP or GPG for email.

Contesting. Possibly the most popular activity among hams is contesting. That is, contacting as many other operators in the world in a given time frame. Nowadays, scoring is done by having all the operators send the log of their contacts to the contest’s website. If K1AA says they have contacted F6ZZ at 28,500 MHz around 14:00 UTC, and F6ZZ says they have contacted K1AA at the same frequency at around the same time, we can probably assume that this actually happened. Unless K1AA and F6ZZ are colluding, of course, but this is hard to prevent. But if, for some reason, F6ZZ is unable, or forgets, to upload their logs, then the contest will assume that K1AA made a mistake, and subtract points. With authenticated QSOs, K1AA could provide strong evidence that the contacts happened as described. Contests already routinely require the exchange of serial numbers, so it might not be such a stretch to implement. Instead of an incrementing number, each operator might have a computer generate a short code for each contact.

Wow. Much radio. So frequency. Many QSOs.

Online services. Now that digital modes and packet communications are finally being used in amateur radio, it is possible to use protocols such as HTTP. But, without authentication, the use cases are as limited as the Web in the early 1990s. With authentication, we could envision message boards and editable wikis with secure user accounts.

These are just the few examples I could think of, but there might be other relevant applications. Of course, there are wrinkles to be ironed out, but I do not pretend to have it all figured out.

Null Cipher

How do we use that in practice? We could roll our own crypto, or not. On the one hand, it is deceptively easy to make mistakes when implementing cryptography by oneself. On the other hand, the purpose of amateur radio is to experiment. So we might play around with custom cryptographic protocols over the air, but maybe we should use proven ones for actual persistent use. Let’s see what we could use for this.

TLS. The first obvious candidate is the omnipresent TLS. It is mostly used to authenticate servers, but you can also use it to authenticate clients. This has already been discussed in the past in the context of amateur radio to authenticate clients for remote base stations. Using TLS with the “NULL” cipher is a common topic, and it is not very hard to tell OpenSSL to do so (-cipher NULL-SHA256:@SECLEVEL=0). Modifying some web server to serve content with the NULL cipher is more involved, but probably not that hard.

However, both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome have removed the NULL cipher from the list of supported ciphers. In other words, they will refuse to connect without encryption. Fixing this would involve modifying their source code (easy), navigating their complicated build process (annoying), distributing them to the users (hard), and maintaining the fork (who wants to do that anyway?). Unfortunately, this is probably necessary, if we also want to prevent users from inadvertently using encryption by connecting to HTTPS websites. I’ll probably look into it at some point, but this is a significant project.

Me writing some random text through an SSH connection

SSH. Another candidate is SSH, which is already widely used for remote control of virtually everything nowadays (yes, I know, everything is terrible). It authenticates both the server and the client. The source code and the build process are also fairly simple, so it is easy to make a server and a client that can talk to each other without encryption. The nice thing with SSH is that you can then redirect ports through it, use it as a SOCKS proxy, or even as a VPN.

Wireshark intercepting the raw communications for the SSH sessions over the network. As you can see, the text is visible in clear. The [0m, [1m, [27m and so on are ANSI escape sequences. The rest are the SSH handshake and the cryptographic signature, which are easier to read when displayed as such.

Conclusion

To sum up, I like the idea of using cryptographic tools to provide proper authentication for remote control and enable new use cases through amateur radio. Of course, there is significant work to be done before we can get to there, but it’s nice to know that we do not need to start from scratch.

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