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RSA Laboratories

4.1.2.3 What is the life cycle of a key?

Keys have limited lifetimes for a number of reasons. The most important reason is protection against cryptanalysis (see Section 2.4). Each time the key is used, it generates a number of ciphertexts. Using a key repetitively allows an attacker to build up a store of ciphertexts (and possibly plaintexts) which may prove sufficient for a successful cryptanalysis of the key value. Thus keys should have a limited lifetime. If you suspect that an attacker may have obtained your key, the key should be considered compromised, and its use discontinued.

Research in cryptanalysis can lead to possible attacks against either the key or the algorithm. For example, recommended RSA key lengths are increased every few years to ensure that the improved factoring algorithms do not compromise the security of messages encrypted with RSA. The recommended key length depends on the expected lifetime of the key. Temporary keys, which are valid for a day or less, may be as short as 512 bits. Keys used to sign long-term contracts for example, should be longer, say, 1024 bits or more.

Another reason for limiting the lifetime of a key is to minimize the damage from a compromised key. It is unlikely a user will discover an attacker has compromised his or her key if the attacker remains "passive." Relatively frequent key changes will limit any potential damage from compromised keys. Ford [For94] describes the life cycle of a key as follows:

  1. Key generation and possibly registration (for a public key).
  2. Key distribution.
  3. Key activation/deactivation.
  4. Key replacement or key update.
  5. Key revocation.
  6. Key termination, involving destruction or possibly archival.

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