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Break-glass Encryption

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Public-Key Cryptography – PKC 2019 (PKC 2019)

Part of the book series: Lecture Notes in Computer Science ((LNSC,volume 11443))

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“Break-glass” is a term used in IT healthcare systems to denote an emergency access to private information without having the credentials to do so.

In this paper we introduce the concept of break-glass encryption for cloud storage, where the security of the ciphertexts – stored on a cloud – can be violated exactly once, for emergency circumstances, in a way that is detectable and without relying on a trusted party.

Detectability is the crucial property here: if a cloud breaks glass without permission from the legitimate user, the latter should detect it and have a proof of such violation. However, if the break-glass procedure is invoked by the legitimate user, then semantic security must still hold and the cloud will learn nothing. Distinguishing that a break-glass is requested by the legitimate party is also challenging in absence of secrets.

In this paper, we provide a formalization of break-glass encryption and a secure instantiation using hardware tokens. Our construction aims to be a feasibility result and is admittedly impractical. Whether hardware tokens are necessary to achieve this security notion and whether more practical solutions can be devised are interesting open questions.

A. Scafuro—Supported by NSF grant #1012798.

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  1. 1.

    The name break-glass encryption is inspired by the break-glass procedures used in access control of various systems (healthcare, computer systems, etc.). In a break-glass procedure the system administrator breaks into the account of a certain user without the legitimate credentials in order to retrieve his data.

  2. 2.

    We do not formally cover this cheating case, as it requires formalization of the network interface, which is outside the scope of this work.

  3. 3.

    To see why, note that, besides the access to the token, a cloud only has a list of ciphertexts. The output of the token is either a ciphertext, or a message m, but no other information about the secret key is given in output. Thus, if a cloud is able to decrypt a ciphertext, without calling the break command, this cloud is violating the CPA-security of the ciphertext.


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We thank Laurie Williams for the initial discussion on break-glass encryption, as well as many other insightful conversations. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments.

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Correspondence to Alessandra Scafuro .

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A Additional Security Definitions

A Additional Security Definitions

Ciphertext Integrity INT-CTX [BN08]. The definition of Cipher Integrity INT-CTX, introduced by Bellare et al. in [BN08] is described in Fig. 9.

Fig. 9.
figure 9

INT-CTX game [BN08]

Fig. 10.
figure 10

\(\mathcal {F}_{\mathsf{wrap}}\) functionality [Kat07]

Ideal Functionality \(\mathcal {F}_{\mathsf{wrap}}\). For completeness we report the ideal \(\mathcal {F}_{\mathsf{wrap}}\) functionality in Fig. 10.

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Scafuro, A. (2019). Break-glass Encryption. In: Lin, D., Sako, K. (eds) Public-Key Cryptography – PKC 2019. PKC 2019. Lecture Notes in Computer Science(), vol 11443. Springer, Cham.

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