**Dice Random Numbers**

Generating data with entropy, or random number generation (RNG), is a well-known difficult problem. Many crypto algorithms and protocols assumes random data is available. There are many implementations out there, including /dev/random in the BSD and Linux kernels and API calls in crypto libraries such as GnuTLS or OpenSSL. How they work can be understood by reading the source code. The quality of the data depends on actual hardware and what entropy sources were available — the RNG implementation itself is deterministic, it merely convert data with supposed entropy from a set of data sources and then generate an output stream.

In some situations, like on virtualized environments or on small embedded systems, it is hard to find sources of sufficient quantity. Rarely are there any lower-bound estimates on how much entropy there is in the data you get. You can improve the RNG issue by using a separate hardware RNG, but there is deployment complexity in that, and from a theoretical point of view, the problem of trusting that you get good random data merely moved from one system to another. (There is more to say about hardware RNGs, I’ll save that for another day.)

For some purposes, the available solutions does not inspire enough confidence in me because of the high complexity. Complexity is often the enemy of security. In crypto discussions I have said, only half-jokingly, that about the only RNG process that I would trust is one that I can explain in simple words and implement myself with the help of pen and paper. Normally I use the example of rolling a normal six-sided dice (a D6) several times. I have been thinking about this process in more detail lately, and felt it was time to write it down, regardless of how silly it may seem.

A dice with six sides produces a random number between 1 and 6. It is relatively straight forward to intuitively convinced yourself that it is not clearly biased: inspect that it looks symmetric and do some trial rolls. By repeatedly rolling the dice, you can generate how much data you need, time permitting.

I do not understand enough thermodynamics physics to know how to estimate the amount of entropy of a physical process, so I need to resort to intuitive arguments. It would be easy to just assume that a dice produces 3 bits of entropy, because 2^3=6 which matches the number of possible outcomes. At least I find it easy to convince myself that 3 bits is the upper bound. I suspect that most dice have some form of defect, though, which leads to a very small bias that could be found with a large number of rolls. Thus I would propose that the amount of entropy of most D6’s are slightly below 3 bits on average. Further, to establish a lower bound, and intuitively, it seems easy to believe that if the entropy of particular D6 would be closer to 2 bits than to 3 bits, this would be noticeable fairly quickly by trial rolls. That assumes the dice does not have complex logic and machinery in it that would hide the patterns. With the tinfoil hat on, consider a dice with a power source and mechanics in it that allowed it to decide which number it would land on: it could generate seamingly-looking random pattern that still contained 0 bits of entropy. For example, suppose a D6 is built to produce the pattern 4, 1, 4, 2, 1, 3, 5, 6, 2, 3, 1, 3, 6, 3, 5, 6, 4, … this would mean it produces 0 bits of entropy (compare the numbers with the decimals of sqrt(2)). Other factors may also influence the amount of entropy in the output, consider if you roll the dice by just dropping straight down from 1cm/1inch above the table. With this discussion as background, and for simplicity, going forward, I will assume that my D6 produces 3 bits of entropy on every roll.

We need to figure out how many times we need to roll it. I usually find myself needing a 128-bit random number (16 bytes). Crypto algorithms and protocols typically use power-of-2 data sizes. 64 bits of entropy results in brute-force attacks requiring about 2^64 tests, and for many operations, this is feasible with today’s computing power. Performing 2^128 operations does not seem possible with today’s technology. To produce 128 bits of entropy using a D6 that produces 3 bits of entropy per roll, you need to perform ceil(128/3)=43 rolls.

We also need to design an algorithm to convert the D6 output into the resulting 128-bit random number. While it would be nice from a theoretical point of view to let each and every bit of the D6 output influence each and every bit of the 128-bit random number, this becomes difficult to do with pen and paper. For simplicity, my process will be to write the binary representation of the D6 output on paper in 3-bit chunks and then read it up as 8-bit chunks. After 8 rolls, there are 24 bits available, which can be read up as 3 distinct 8-bit numbers. So let’s do this for the D6 outputs of 3, 6, 1, 1, 2, 5, 4, 1:

3 6 1 1 2 5 4 1
011 111 001 001 010 101 010 001
01111100 10010101 01010001
124 0x7C 149 0x95 81 0x51

After 8 rolls, we have generated the 3 byte hex string “7C9551″. I repeat the process 5 more times, concatenating the strings, resulting in a hex string with 15 bytes of data. To get the last byte, I only need to roll the D6 three more times, where the two high bits of the last roll is used and the lowest bit is discarded. Let’s say the last D6 outputs were 4, 2, 3, this would result in:

4 2 3
100 010 011
10001001
137 0x89

So the 16 bytes of random data is “7C9551..89″ with “..” replaced by the 5 pieces of 3-byte chunks of data.

So what’s the next step? Depends on what you want to use the random data for. For some purposes, such as generating a high-quality 128-bit AES key, I would be done. The key is right there. To generate a high-quality ECC private key, you need to generate somewhat more randomness (matching the ECC curve size) and do a couple of EC operations. To generate a high-quality RSA private key, unfortunately you will need much more randomness, at the point where it makes more sense to implement a PRNG seeded with a strong 128-bit seed generated using this process. The latter approach is the general solution: generate 128 bits of data using the dice approach, and then seed a CSPRNG of your choice to get large number of data quickly. These steps are somewhat technical, and you lose the pen-and-paper properties, but code to implement these parts are easier to verify compared to verifying that you get good quality entropy out of your RNG implementation.

Syndicated 2014-11-11 23:36:02 from Simon Josefsson's blog