Yubikey One-Time Password Authentication

How to add one-time passwords to your own system for added security without investing in an expensive authentication infrastructure.
More about Encryption

Let's take a closer look at the encryption step of generating the token. In contrast to asymmetric algorithms used in public-key encryption schemes, such as PGP, AES is a symmetric algorithm. This means both the party encrypting the token and the party decrypting and validating it will need access to the AES-128 key! This sharing of the AES key happens when the device is programmed. Similar to the device's unique ID, the unique AES-128 key is generated and stored on the device by Yubico before it is shipped out. The company maintains a database where the unique public as well as secret IDs are associated with their corresponding AES keys. This way, Yubico is able to offer an authentication Web service.

Using a symmetric algorithm has the advantage that it is typically very fast. Also, you don't need to rely on third parties for key management or to vouch for identities.

If you want to be in charge of your own AES key, you have two options. First, you can request your AES key from Yubico. At the time of this writing, Yubico will send you a CD containing the AES key, but the company also is working on a more convenient solution of retrieving the key on-line. Second, you can use Yubico's development kit to program the key yourself. This way, you can assign AES-128 keys, as well as public and secret IDs, according to your own naming conventions. If you supplement this approach by running your own authentication Web service, you eliminate any dependence on Yubico as a third party in your authentication procedure.

The Validation Algorithm: Order Matters

It's not surprising that the process of validating an OTP resembles reversing the steps necessary for constructing an OTP. A basic validation routine might look something like this. First, you ModHex decode the string. Next, you split the string into public ID and 16-byte token. Then, you use the public ID to look up the corresponding AES key. After using the AES key to decrypt, you have the original 16-byte token in plain text. Next, you would verify the CRC-16 checksum (the last two bytes). Then, you would compare the secret ID to the one you retrieved from the database using the public ID. Using the session counter and the session token counter, make sure that the current token was generated after the last successfully authenticated token. Although you don't know exactly when any two tokens were generated, you always can tell in which order they were generated. If the token passes all these tests, you can send a response signaling successful validation to the client. Otherwise, the token is rejected.

Optionally, you can harden the validation algorithm further. For example, you can try to calculate how many sessions or tokens have been skipped since the last successful validation and consider that information in your decision to validate or reject the token. You can use the session timestamp in a similar manner.

Yubico's Open-Source Approach

One thing I find really attractive about Yubico's business model is that it tries to provide all software in the form of open source. According to Yubico's statements, it plans to profit from the manufacture and sale of the devices, but intends to keep all software open source. For example, the source code for the aforementioned Web service is freely available as a reference implementation. Furthermore, Yubico offers client libraries needed for implementing Yubikey authentication in various applications and platforms. Currently, there are client libraries available in Java, C, C#/.NET, PAM, PHP, Ruby, Perl and Python. All these libraries and programs are set up as Google Code projects. Additionally, there are projects for libraries to decrypt OTPs in C and Java, as well as an Open ID server and a personalization tool to allow you to program your own Yubikey. Although all these software projects were initiated by Yubico, you already can see others contributing. Moreover, a number of independent open-source projects using the Yubikey technology have surfaced. Yubico's discussion forum is a good place to keep tabs on such projects and get support.

The Yubico Authentication Service

When you order a Yubikey, it comes ready to take advantage of Yubico's authentication Web service. Because Yubico maintains a database of all API keys, as well as public and secret IDs with which the Yubikeys have been programmed before shipment, Yubico has decided to offer an authentication Web service against those credentials. Developers then can use the Yubico authentication Web service to validate OTPs captured from the device. Yubico has a Web page where you can request an API key. Anyone can get an API key. The only requirement is that you have to submit a valid Yubikey OTP. This is merely a measure to avoid database bloat from too many bogus requests. The API key also comes with an ID number.

The purpose of the API key is to sign/verify requests to/from the Yubico authentication Web service using the HMAC-SHA1 hashing algorithm. This is done because support for SSL is often spurious in the various environments in which the Web service client libraries have to function. Note that it is not strictly necessary to use SSL, because the token already is encrypted! However, as an added precaution, SSL should be used as a transport layer whenever it is available. In the PHP client library, for example, all you have to do is add an s to http where the authentication server URL is specified.



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bad link

Christian Peper's picture


the link to supported apps is broken.
http://yubico.com/applications/software/ is the correct one


Swekey's picture

Hi Dirk,

If you are interested in authentication you should also have a look on the swekey.

It is a totally different approach than the Yubikey.

If you want a free sample for evaluation I'll be happy to send you one...



2 step authentication

Anonymous's picture

What is to prevent the attacker from simulating the response to the first step? More than a simple challenge to the user will be too much of a burden to the user, while a simple challenge will likely be easy to work-around.

I would suggest using the Yubikey device with HTTP Digest Authentication. Of course, the Yubikey OTP will have to be entered in the User Name field, not the password.

It is 10 dreams come true!

Jane's picture

Secure, elegant, and innovative!


Keep the good work!