(In-)secure messaging with SCIMP and OMEMO


Many secure end-to-end messaging protocols exist in the wild, most of which claim to provide the same basic security properties. However, each protocol exists in a different context and has different requirements to fulfill. The protocol and the security that is achieved is not independent of that context. In particular, we take a look at the Silent Circle instant messaging protocol (SCIMP), the former default messaging protocol on the BlackPhone. We construct a model of the protocol using the formal verifier ProVerif, with which we prove that version one of the protocol is secure and we find a man-in-the-middle attack against version two. By comparing the model against the actual implementation we find a discrepancy that allows an attacker to perform the attack completely undetected. A similar situation arises in OMEMO (an multi-device XMPP implementation of the Signal protocol), which did not achieve the full potential security when deployed in a multi-device setting. Both protocols have been patched and should no longer be vulnerable against the found attacks.

Secure Messaging Protocols

Secure messaging has been around for a long time, yet there is much active development in the field. The main reason is an increasing set of requirements that these protocols should fulfill. Besides the basic end-to-end encryption providing confidentiality and authenticity, we want the protocols to support key-erasure (also known as forward secrecy), deniability and future secrecy (sometimes advertised as the self-healing property). Many of these features were introduced by the Off-the-record (OTR) protocol .
This work presents the analysis of two protocols, namely the Silent Circle instant messaging protocol (SCIMP) and OMEMO , which is a multi-device XMPP implementation of the Signal protocol . Both protocols/implementations contained vulnerabilities, although in both cases a fix has been provided by the developers: while SCIMP has been discontinued in favor of an adaptation of the Signal protocol, the patched version of SCIMP is currently being considered for standardization in XMPP. More detailed reports of these results have been made available online, see - - .

Formal verification

We specified SCIMP in the formal language of ProVerif , which provides a mathematical model of the protocol. Then we ask the tool to prove several theorems about that model, such as its correctness, the confidentiality of data and/or keys and the authenticity of received messages. The tool outputs either that no attack is possible (in the model) or it reports a possible vulnerability.
The value of security proofs (both those using formal verifiers and pen-and-paper proofs) has been subjected to much debate in the security community. To evaluate the real-world impact of a successful verification, we need to check how closely the model describes the actual implementation, if the attacker model accurately describes the real-world adversary capabilities and if the context in which the protocol is deployed meets the assumptions of the model. A negative result is often much easier to interpret: it provides vulnerabilities which could be expoited by a real-world adversary.


ProVerif applies the Dolev-Yao attacker model to the specified model, meaning that the attacker is able to inject, alter and drop any messages send over a public channel. It does not consider, for example, side-channel attacks. The full ProVerif models for SCIMP are available on GitHub .


SCIMP was initially released in the Silent Text application , the default messaging application of the BlackPhone. The protocol is an XMPP implementation of SecureSMS . After an initial ephemeral key exchange the users share key material which they can use to authenticate each others identity and to send private messages.

Version 1

Alice and Bob initially execute an ephemeral elliptic-curve Diffie-Hellman key exchange, which provides them with a shared secret. With a key-derivation function (KDF) they derive a number of values: keys for encryption, MAC values to check that the other party completed their part of the key exchange, a short authentication string (SAS) for authenticating the other party and a cached secret (CS) for rekeying.
SCIMP first key negotiation
The short authentication string is required because ephemeral Diffie-Hellman is vulnerable to a trivial man-in-the-middle attack, therefore the users must compare the SAS out-of-band. By initiating the key exchange with a commitment to the public key of Alice, the adversary is given only a single guess at a key that results in a SAS-collision, so that the SAS can be short (easy for humans to compare) while still remaining secure.
SCIMP also considers security after a key was compromised. By renegotiating keys, the keys are renewed and security is restored, assuming the adversary did not compromise the rekeying itself. By mixing the CS into the KDF, the users do not have to compare the SAS again.
SCIMP rekeying
Sending private messages is done by symmetric encryption using the derived keys. After each sent/received message, the corresponding key is ratcheted forward with a MAC function.
Our ProVerif model consists of the key exchange, rekeying and sending user messages. The tool proved that SCIMP version 1 meets all described security requirements.

Version 2

SCIMP version 1 does not allow offline initial messages (Alice wants to message Bob while his phone is off), so version 2 was released May 2014 , although the source-code was not released until August 2015 . It introduced "progressive encryption", in which the server keeps a cache of Bobs half of the key negotiation. Alice completes her half to derive a temporary key to encrypt messages and initiates another (version 1) key exchange in parallel, after which a SAS-comparison confirms the identity of the other party.
SCIMP progressive encryption
For version 2 we created a ProVerif model for the updated key exchange. The tool reported that the first message can be compromised. In order to assess the impact of this vulnerability, we inspected the code to see how an adversary would be able to trigger this vulnerability.
We found that the adversary can extend its man-in-the-middle position undetected as long as the parallel key negotiation was not completed. By inspecting the plaintext tag on each message all key exchange messages can be blocked. Vigilant users might detect this (since they would expect to get a SAS after at most four user messages). However, a second implementation bug allows a complete compromise after the SAS was confirmed by the users. When receiving an out-of-order (re)keying message, the code only inspects the message tag before aborting. The code then overreacts and also deletes all local key material, thereby anulling any security set up in the past. A new key negotiation is required which can be compromised.
The code inspection uncovered more vulnerabilities in the implementation. We reported our findings to Silent Circle, most of which were fixed by their September 2015 migration to a Signal-based protocol. However, some of the vulnerabilities were still present in the copy-pasted code that was in use until July 2016 when we reported our findings , after which it was fixed within a few days.


OMEMO is an XMPP implementation of the Signal protocol. It allows multiple devices in one conversation. The Signal application does this by sharing the private key between devices, while in OMEMO each device has its own key. In OMEMO, pairwise Signal sessions are set up between each device. User messages get encrypted/authenticated with a random key. That key is sent to each device inside the Signal session and the encrypted/authenticated user message is sent outside that session. I analyzed the security of this solution and found a vulnerability .
When a single device in a conversation is compromised, confidentiality can no longer be guaranteed. However, messages from non-compromised devices should still be authentic. However, with the initial OMEMO solution, a compromised device can encrypt arbitrary messages once it has received the random key. Therefore, an authentication tag of the user message should be send to each user inside the Signal session. This solution was implemented in an updated version of OMEMO the same day that I reported the vulnerability.


Implementing modern secure messaging protocols is not always straightforward. Extending existing solutions to include more functionality can compromise security in surprising ways. Even cryptographic experts do not always get it right. Luckily there are tools such as ProVerif which can help us to analyze the protocols and expose flaws. Even with these tools, there remains a gap between the security of a protocol as specified and the security of the implementation. Therefore, I would love to see more powerful tools that can extract a model from the code.


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Borisov, N., Goldberg, I., Brewer, E. (2004). Off-the-Record Communication, or, Why Not to Use PGP. In Proceedings of the 2004 ACM Workshop on Privacy in the Electronic Society, pages 77-84.
Lange, T., Verschoor, S. R. (2016). (In-)Secure messaging with the Silent Circle instant messaging protocol. https://eprint.iacr.org/2016/703
Moscaritolo, V. (2015). Silent Text 2.0: The next generation of private messaging. https://web.archive.org/web/20150506152939/https://blog.silentcircle.com/silent-text-2-0-the-next-generation-of-private-messaging/
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Straub, A. (2016). XEP-0384: OMEMO Encryption. XMPP Standards Foundation. https://xmpp.org/extensions/xep-0384.html
Verschoor, S. R. (2016). OMEMO: Cryptographic Analysis Report. https://conversations.im/omemo/audit.pdf
Verschoor, S. R. (2016). ProVerif models for SCIMP. https://github.com/sebastianv89/scimp-proverif
Verschoor, S. R. (2016). Secure messaging in mobile environments (Masters thesis). http://repository.tue.nl/844313


Tags: SCIMP, Silent Circle, OMEMO, XMPP, Instant Messaging Protocol
  • Primary Author Name: Sebastian R. Verschoor
  • Primary Author Affiliation: University of Waterloo
  • Primary Author Affiliation: Eindhoven University of Technology
  • Primary Author Email: [email protected]