On the problem of signature authentication for network mail (RFC0644)
Original Publication Date: 1974-Jul-01
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2019-Feb-14
Internet Society Requests For Comment (RFCs)
Network Working Group Bob Thomas Request for Comments: 644 BBN-TENEX Jul 1974
On the Problem of Signature Authentication for Network Mail
This note describes the problem of signature authentication for network mail, presents a general approach to the problem and proposes a specific implementation of that approach.
1. The Problem
The problem we wish to consider is:
How can the recipient of a network mail message be "certain" that the signature (e.g., the name in the "FROM" field) is authentic; that is, that the message is really from whom it claims to be?
We are interested in the problem of signature authenticity in the network context. For purposes of this note we shall assume a solution to the signature authentication problem for local mail (i.e., messages from one user to another within a single host). That is, we assume that for any host, either the host regards the problem as important and has a mechanism for guaranteeing signatures on local mail or that the host does not regard the problem as important and does not guarantee signature authentication. It should become clear how this assumption relates to our approach to the network signature problem.
We shall discuss our approach using the following simple model for network mail:
To send net mail a user invokes a mail sending process (SP) on his local host (SH). The process SP acts on behalf of the user to deliver the message to an appropriate mailbox at the receiving host (RH). It does that by interacting with a receiving process (RP) that runs on host RH. RP accepts the message from SP and deposits it in the appropriate mailbox.
In the current implementation of network mail, the receiving process RP is typically an FTP server process. For the current TENEX implementation the mail sending process SP is either a process running SNDMSG or a "background" MAILER process which sends "queued" (previously posted but undelivered) mail.
2. An Approach
We seek a solution which will allow RP, the receiving process, to mark the signature on messages it receives as authenticated or not with respect to SH, the sending host. If RP can so mark incoming messages, a user reading his mail at RH would be able to see the signature on each message as authenticated or not with respect to the host of origin. The authenticity of the signature on a piece of mail is understood to be responsibility of the originating host. The credibility a user gives a particular message which is marked as authentic can be based on the user’s own estimate of the source host’s user authentication and access control mechanisms. -1-
The success of this approach depends upon two things:
a. Users develop estimates of the security of various host user authentication and access control mechanisms. We have seen that users who are concerned about data privacy and security are already doing this within the ARPANET.
b. The existence of a mechanism which RP, the receiving process, can use to distinguish mail authenticated with respect to the ...