Collaborative Key Management (CKM) is a Blockchain Commons architecture for generating, storing, and using keys in a collaborative way, where several different devices or entities come together and use their individual secrets to generate and regenerate keys solely for the brief instant that they’re needed …
What Problems Does CKM Solve?
Current methodologies for protecting digital assets require that you either give all of the keys underlying your assets to a third party, allowing an exchange such as Binance or Coinbase to hold your coins; or else take full responsibility for personally holding those keys yourself in a self-sovereign way, using desktop apps such as Electrum or Sparrow, browser-based apps like Metamask, hardware such as Ledger or Passport, or physical offline approaches such as inscribing seed words into metal plates.
All of these current methods have flaws.
- They’re all threatened by Single Points of Compromise (SPOCs) where someone can steal your key. Third parties are particularly vulnerable because they’re big targets, such as when the Poly Network had $600M in cryptocurrency stolen by hackers.
- They’re all threatened by Single Points of Failure (SPOFs) where a key is lost. Personal holdings are particularly vulnerable because an invidual holder might not have the expertise or means to protect their keys, such that forgetting a PIN for a hardware wallet can lead to the loss of its funds.
- They’re all threatened by Single Points of Denial (SPODs), where centralized servers can refuse to process transactions. This is particularly a concern when working with a third party who could arbitrarily decide to block anything a crypto-owner is doing. Canada tried to exert financial censorship of this type over crypto-wallets associated with the “Freedom” Convoy.
The solution offered by CKM is that we secure each other. Using Collaborative Key Management, we can spread out the responsibility of protecting the keys underlying digital assets among a variety of parties, each inspired by self-interest, by community spirit, or by a desire to protect the assets themselves. Because no one party ever has access to all the key material, we remove SPOFs, SPOCs, and SPODs, creating a better and safer way to access the digital world. We also build on the existing improvements in SSKR, Gordian Envelope, and CSR, which themselves improved the resilience of digital assets in a variety of ways, as well as newer technologies such as Schnorr signatures.
CKM improves upon self-custody methods by better securing against SPOFs, and offers even larger protections compared to third-party custody solutions. It even offers some incremental improvements on CSR, which is why it’s considered Phase 4 of the CSR rollout. The following chart shows improvements from third-party custody to self-custody to CSR to CKM.
|CKM||CSR||Self Custody||Third-party Custody|
|SPOF||Asset loss only with multiple server failures.||Asset (Seed) loss only with multiple server failures.||Asset loss is top failure condition.||Asset loss is lesser failure condition thanks to professional protections.|
|SPOC||Key compromise only with multiple server compromises. Key doesn’t exist until used.||Recovery compromise only after multiple server compromises. (Does not protect against key compromise.)||Key compromise is lesser failure condition thanks to being smaller target.||System compromise of key storage is top failure condition.|
|SPOD||Ease of variant key creation. Denial only with multiple server collusion.||Denial only with multiple server collusion.||Denial only with global collusion.||Denial if custodian or third party blocks transactions.|
For other problems that CKM solves, which go beyond just protecting keys, see Appendix I.
Why Now for CKM?
CKM has been enabled by the incorporation of new cryptography into Bitcoin, in particular the availabilty of Schnorr after the Taproot softfork, and by the rollout of the first security-tested FROST implementation by the Zcash Foundation. For the first time, thanks to some special characteristics of Bitcoin’s secp256k1 elliptic curve, we can make use of the special advantages of Schnorr such as signature aggregation and adapter signatures and support the use of quorum threshold-signature schemes such as FROST to leverage SMPC (Secure Multi Party Computation).
Each of these new technologies have specific advantages that can be applied to a CKM system:
- Schnorr allows for smaller multisigs than current technologies, and also improves privacy by not revealing who signed a transaction (nor even if it was a single signature or a multisignature).
- Taproot fully integrates Schnorr signatures into Bitcoin, improves the privacy of Bitcoin scripts, and allows for more complex scripting.
- SMPC allows for keys to be collaboratively generated and used such that no individual ever sees the full key.
- ZF FROST implements the latter through its Distributed Key Generation.
By improving the use of multisigs and of Bitcoin scripts, and by allowing for SMPC to generate and use keys together, we can engage in wide-scale collaboration on the Bitcoin blockchain, which can then be extended to other digital-asset classes.
What is the Vision/Goal of CKM?
The ultimate vision of CKM is to create a collaborative infastructure that is sufficiently robust to largely eradicate the loss of assets due to the loss of critical keys and sufficiently secure and well-administered to largely eliminate the loss of assets due to the theft of keys. Thie infrastructure is intended to work even with blockchains such as Ethereum that have technological or cultural obstacles that otherwise have prevented the deployment of these type of safeguards.
The obstacles on Ethereum are large enough that current methodologies may not be salvageable. This is especially true for the architecture of Metamask-style software wallets, which are built on a fundamentally insecure foundation as web extensions that makes overuse of a single key. The CKM methodology creates a new way to secure individual keys of this sort.
Even on the Bitcoin blockchain, which has more possibilities for collaborative key usage, the process of doing so is sufficiently complex that it’s beyond the average user. CKM endeavors to resolve these issues by refactoring the fundamental thought processes underlying the management of keys used by cryptography and by making more complex methodologies easy to use.
The ultimate goal of CKM is to bring better key management solutions to enough of the digital asset space to make it a potential option for any user. We believe that embedding CKM in as little as 15% of digital wallets will create a tipping point that will ensure that other wallet manufacturers cannot afford to ignore it.
What is the Business Model for CKM?
CKM is of immediate interest to current holders of keys for digital assets (“key managers”) because it changes their responsibility from holding keys to holding fractional keys (“shares”).
This allows them to:
- Reduce cost of securing keys, eliminating need for custom storage solutions.
- Reduce or remove liability associated with storage of keys.
- Plausibly deny control of keys.
Obviously, this requires new key managers to appear to hold other fractions of these keys. We feel that two fundamental goals will bootstrap this initial community:
- Current key managers may exchange responsibilities with each other, each agreeing to secure a fractional key for all clients of the other. This creates a selling point for the key managers because they can advertise an automated experience where CKM support is guaranteed. (It should also be a tried-and-true method when we roll out CKM, because it is already the intended methodology for CSR ramp-up.)
- Interested third-parties may offer fractional key management to fulfill a larger mission. Museums may desire to protect digital artwork; universities may want to improve innovation; civil-rights organizations may be interested in ensuring the self-sovereignty of internet users; and the open-source community has proven that they will take on tasks of this sort for the public good.
Afterward, we expect to see the emergence of commercial options:
- Commercial interests will likely charge for fractional key management by value-adding other services that improve upon the deployments offered by existing key managers and interested third parties. Because of the long tail guaranteed by the quickly exploding digital asset category, fees can be low while still returning high grosses, and payments of low amounts can be simply made through any cryptocurrencies being protected.
Key managers will ultimately be part of a larger infrastructure, which may also include storage providers (see “Gordian Envelopes” in Appendix III), specialized key managers such as insured fiduciaries, and servers that can look up, rate, and reference providers. Most of these additions to the infrastructure will appear as value-adds from companies interested in charging for fractional key management by offering more than the initial public or partnered services that appear.
The network effect between these different parties should also accelerate the adoption of CKM.
What Roles Do Various Parties Play?
Various parties will likely take on the following rules in the CKM infrastructure.
Hardware Wallet Manufacturers
- Examples: Foundation Devices, Keystone
- Current Problems: Lack of differentiation in market; devices that are SPOFs; requirement of individual integration from software wallets.
- Solutions: Incorporate Gordian Envelope and CKM specifications.
By supporting the Gordian Envelope specifications and participating in collaborative key generation, usage, and recovery, hardware wallet will future-proof their products because they will be offering next-generation key resilience. They’ll also open up their hardware devices to a multitude of software wallets without the need for individual integration. Finally, they can advertise their meeting high standards for key resilience and security.
- Examples: CrossBar, Tropic Square
- Current Problems: Not in crypto market, barriers to entry due to vast numbers of hardware and software solutions.
- Solutions: Incorporate specifications desired by crypto market and usable in an interoperable way.
There is a large void in silicon support for the cryptographic market. The first chip manufacturer into that market will be able to quickly multiply its success with this newly opened market. The biggest problem with entering the market is integrating with a large number of different hardware and software solutions. Interoperable specifications such as Gordian Envelope are the way to do so, without having to craft integrations for each manufacturer. CKM also offers strong future-proofing for any chip manufacturer, ensuring that they will remain very relevant as the crypto-market changes and grows.
(We have already begun work with Chip Manufacturers through our Silicon Salons.)
Software Wallet Manufacturers
- Examples: Sparrow Wallet
- Current Problems: Wallets that are vulnerable SPOFs or alternatively multisigs that require multiple linked devices and suffer from The NASCAR Problem (having to individually support different vendors).
- Solutions: Incorporate specifications that support interoperable, networked multisigs.
The current state of the art for software-wallet manufacturers is using them to create single-sig wallets or to link to single-sig hardware devices — which is horribly vulnerable. If the device containing the keys is compromised or lost, any digital assets are lost.
The next generation of software wallets, which are now appearing, offer support for multisigs, but they do so by requiring individual integrations to many different hardware and software designs. The user then has to juggle multiple signing devices to access his funds.
By integrating CKM, software wallet manufacturers can have access to all hardware wallet manufacturers who support inteoperable specifications such as Gordian Envelope and they can provide better user experiences where a user usually will manage at most one hardware signing device.
- Examples: Feral File
- Current Problems: Liability from holding keys for NFTs, potentially worsened by being a SPOF.
- Solutions: Give out shares of keys to CKM servers, potentially holding on to one of those shares themselves.
Online galleries can reduce their liability by handing off custodianship of NFTs or other digital assets to other key managers via partnered exchanges or through user-selected menus of free or paid services. They might hold one fraction of the keys themselves, or they might get out of the key business entirely.
- Examples: MOMA
- Current Problems: Poor integration with digital world of art, no way to preserve digital art, potential of loss for digital art that they hold as a SPOF.
- Solutions: Become a CKM server, share CKM responsibilities
Museums can improve their integration with digital art by becoming a CKM server. This can allow them to better preserve their own digital art and also to better preserve other digital art in the world, which they may not have a personal stake in, but which they may wish to protect as part of their overall mission. They may trade-off with other CKM servers to offer in-kind services, they may charge for CKM services especially extra-value services such as the storage of larger Gordian Envelopes, or they may consider the costs part of their core mission.
- Examples: EFF
- Current Problems: Peoples’ keys, and thus their assets and identities, are often held by centralized corporations who might violate their users rights or allow government entities to do so.
- Solutions: Become a CKM Server, support the CKM specs.
Rights organizations will be interested in hosting CKM servers because of the focus on self-sovereign ownership of digital assets that is implict with CKM, as it ensures rights remain with people.
- Examples: New Companies
- Current Problems: Want to enter the market with a clearly differentiated and value-add product and to make money selling it.
- Solutions: Become a CKM Server with value-add services.
New companies will see value in joining the growing CKM infrastructure because of the ability to value-add services such as secure storage of Gordian Envelopes or look-up or rating services. They will offer these in addition to taking over key-management responsibility from existing servers such as galleries, museums, or rights organizations. Users will choose them because they feel their value adds are worth a small regular fee. (LastPass may be a good example, as it offers a simple security service, it does so for a yearly charge of $3 a month, and it benefits from the long-tail of users needing this service.)
CKM is a new architecture that solves fundamental problems in the current management of the quickly growing class of digital assets by allowing us all to secure each other. It does so by creating a web of key managers and other services, each driven by individual interests and goals. By building the fundamentals of this architecture and deploying its initial wallets, we believe we can quickly hit a tipping point where it becomes the dominant paradigm for the industry.
Appendix I: Problems & CKM Solution
Obviously, the collaborative generation and usage of keys solves a number of problems with SPOFs, SPOCs, and SPODs. Following are some deeper solutions offered by the system.
Problem #1: All Keys Are Easy to Lose
Losing a fragile master key is one of the biggest problems with cryptographic storage, resulting in the loss of digital currencies and more; this can be even more problematic if a user dies or becomes incapacitated, as many digital assets will never pass down to heirs.
Solution: Improved Resilience for Key Storage
CKM’s Gordian Envelopes are stored using a “permit” system that allows different keys to be used in different ways to unlock the same data, further improving resilience by creating multiple ways to access the information
Problem #2: Ethereum Keys Are Especially Vulnerable
Keys on Ethereum (and other state-based blockchains such as Tezos) are more subject to attack and lossage than most because of the high costs for multisigs on the blockchain and because of the cultural use of master keys for everything.
Solution: Ethereum Smart Custody
CKM’s collaborative key usage offers an alternative to traditional multisigs, allowing for improved key resilience and security, even for accounts that are fundamentally single-sig.
Problem #3: Transactions Are Correlatable
Digital transactions are often correlatable, allowing for the collection of ever larger sets of information, particularly when DIDs and (some versions of) Verifiable Credentials are involved. This can turn master keys and seeds into honeypots that become targets for criminals.
Solution: Correlation Protections
The CKM system reduces correlation at several points, beginning with its core CKM functions, which can collaboratively generate many different keys, all built upon the new privacy options available through Schnorr signatures. CKM also allows many objects to be identified by salted hashes that are never reused and supports SCIDs (see below) as a new sort of digital identifier that can be used offline and that allows for minimal disclosure.
Problem #4: Metadata is Hard to Store Securely
Current secret-sharing schemes have low upper limits for how much data can be stored. This makes the storage of larger amounts of data difficult if it needs to be stored in a way that’s secure and resilient — especially if decentralized storage is preferred.
Solution: Secure Metadata Storage
CKM’s methodology for storing additional data in a Gordian Envelope allows for the storage of unbounded amounts of secret material, meeting the needs of secure, collaborative, and decentralized secret storage.
Problem #5: Existing DIDs Are Not Rotatable or Revokable
Existing methodologies for Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) such as
did:key are not rotatable or revokable by the user, creating a potential liability for anyone helping to control the DIDs.
Solution: User-Controlled Identifiers
The CKM system includes Self-Certifying Identifiers (SCIDs), which are derived from the public key it generates and which are thus not locked to a specific blockchain. These SCIDs are rotatable and revokable, putting their control entirely in the hands of the user.
Appendix II: An Overview of CKM Principles
The prime goal of the CKM architecture is to protect digital assets with no Single Points of Failure (SPOFs), no Single Points of Compromise (SPOCs), and no Single Points of Denial (SPODs).
The principles of the CKM architecture are all in furtherance of this goal:
- Multi-Key First.
- Keys can be generated via Collaborative Key Generation.
- Keys can be restored via Collaborative Key Recovery.
- Keys can be used via Collaborative Key Signing.
- Collaborative key managers do not have to be people, but can also be organizations, hardware devices, computers, or other entities.
- Forward-Looking Design.
- The architecture must be proactively built for security & resilience.
- Mature emerging technologies should be used when appropriate, including SSKR, Envelope, and potentially ZF FROST
- The design should be future-proofed, so that more functionality and new technologies can be integrated without changing the architecture.
- No Gods, No Masters.
- There must be no single source of authority in the architecture.
- There must be no option for vendor lock-in within the system.
- Privacy Protection.
- The system does not reveal if any signature is from an individual or a group.
- The system does not reveal who within a group has signed.
- Any information disclosure from the system is minimal for what is required.
- Any information evaulation within the system is redacted with minimal disclosure of only what is required for the business purpose or to minimize risk.
- An Open System.
- Code for the system must be open source.
- Work on the system must be open development & must be transparent.
- Real opportunity must be available for public input on the system’s design.
- Approaches and security decisions must be codified and documented.
- A Referenced System.
- Specifications within the system must be available as reference docs.
- Specifications within the system must be available as reference libraries.
- The system must be security reviewed and the review must be open & transparent.
Appendix III: An Overview of CKM Architecture
The CKM architecture is built upon the following major elements:
- Collaborative Key Generation. A system for generating keys collaboratively.
- Collaborative Key Recovery. A system for recovering lost keys collaboratively.
- Gordian Envelope. A data-type that can store secrets such as keys and other data.
- Permits. An authentication system that allows multiple methods for opening those envelopes.
- Schnorr. A digital signature system.
- Scripting. A permit-scripting system to support more complex authentication in the future.
- SCIDs. A DID-like identifier integrated with CKMs.
- SSKR. A secret sharding system.
The Gordian Envelopes, SSKR, and derivative systems are already present in CSR, but will continue to expand and mature as CSR is completed and development begins on CKM.
The following offers a broad overview of these architectural points:
Collaborative Key Generation. This is the fundamental linchpin of CKM. When keys are collaboratively generated, no one person is responsible for creating the entropy underlying the keys. Further, the key may never exist in its collected form until the instant it is used. FROST and Torus both demonstrate practical methods for collaborative key generation. In CKM, the core concept is that entities holding secrets will generate a variety of keys as they are required. Ideally, this is managed by an SMPC system, such that any key is generated (or regenerated) from secrets held by different machines in the instant it’s required. However, reconstruction of keys from shares may be required for legacy CSR systems or in the case of emergencies.
Collaborative Key Recovery. A sharding system allows shares of a key to be stored without the full key existing anywhere. Shamir’s Secret Sharing is the traditional sharding system, but Verifiable Secret Sharing (VSS) improves upon Shamir by allowing the ability to verify that someone holds a share without reconstructing the key.
Gordian Envelope. A second linchpin of the CKM system is the Gordian Envelope specficiation, which stores data as CBOR and which is potentially encrypted, with the encryption unlockable using a permit system. The Gordian Envelope will often hold cryptocurrency keys for legacy CSR systems and/or metadata. (Keys for full CKM systems may instead be spontaneously generated or regenerated by the Collaborative Key Generation system.)
Permits. Gordian Envelopes can be entirely unencrypted, but more often they’ll be locked with a combination of symmetric (currently ChaCha-Poly) and asymmetric public & private keys generated by the aforementioned collaborative methods. Theses keys can then be regenerated from an SMPC system, held as shares in multiple copies of the envelope, hinted at by a public keys, or linked (or not) to the envelope in some other manner.
Schnorr. A digital signing system based on finite fields instead of prime numbers. It has numerous advantages such as adapter signatures, blind signatures, and threshold signatures, which would be integrated into a complete CKM system.
Scripting. The permit system is a self-describing authentication system, where a script, potentially with secret information, is used to unlock the envelope. The first iteration will just support standardized scripting methodologies, such as the aforementioned regenerated private key, sharded key, and keypair options. However, future versions could allow for entirely arbitrary scripts.
SCIDs. The third major element of the CKM system is the ability to create self-certifying identifiers (SCIDs), which are built off of public keys (and the related scripting information) and which allow the creation of a source of trust for material stored in a
crypto-envelope. SCIDs are by default offline, but keys appropriate to a blockchain, commitments to a blockchain, and proofs for a blockchain can be derived if needs warrant it. Some ideas are inherited from KERI, which offered an example of some of this functionality, but with some limitations.
SSKR. Blockchain Commons’ security-tested implementation of Shamir’s Secret Sharing. A VSS variation used by FROST will also be incorporated as a second option for sharding in order to support this functionality. Use of a Collaborative Key Rescovery System is somewhat of a legacy for CKM, but it’s a fundamental step between CSR and CKM development.