Sunday, April 6, 2014

Introducing the Ruby ECDSA gem

I am happy to announce that I released version 1.0.0 of the Ruby ecdsa gem today. ECDSA stands for Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm. This algorithm, defined in a document called SEC1, allows you to make secure, cryptographic digital signatures of messages. The ecdsa gem is an implementation of ECDSA written almost entirely in pure Ruby.

To install the gem, run:

gem install ecdsa

One of the main purposes of the ecdsa gem is education; it is a good resource for people who want to learn about ECDSA. The ecdsa gem seems to be a lot slower than OpenSSL, but that is okay. Verifying a single secp256k1 signature with the gem takes about 280 ms on my machine.

The main reason that I made the ecdsa gem is because I wanted to do some experiments related to Bitcoin. My language of choice for experimentation is Ruby. Ruby has built-in support for ECDSA through its OpenSSL binding, but I found it frustrating to use.

Comparison to OpenSSL

Ruby's built-in OpenSSL ECDSA support is frustrating mainly because the documentation is very sparse. For example, it says on this page that you can create a new OpenSSL::PKey::EC::Point object from a "group" and a "bn". The group part is easy to figure out, but the "bn" part is not obvious at all. The "bn" stands for "big number". In general, a point can be created from a private key, which is a big number, so I would think that the "bn" argument might be the private key. Instead, the "bn" turns out to actually be a binary representation of the two coordinates of the public key, as defined in section 2.3.4 of SEC1. There was no way to figure this out from the Ruby documentation or the OpenSSL documentation; I had to do an experiment to verify it after someone on StackOverflow explained it to me.

In contrast, the Ruby ecdsa gem documentation explains the types of all its parameters and cites official documents when appropriate. Also, the classes and routines for doing cryptography are very clearly separated from the routines for encoding and decoding data from strings. All the binary formatting routines live in the ECDSA::Format module, and the parts of the gem that do actual cryptographic calculations do not depend on them.

Here is a bit of Ruby code showing how you would verify an ECDSA signature using OpenSSL and then again using the ECDSA gem:

digest =
  "\xbf\x91\xfb\x0b\x4f\x63\x33\x77\x4a\x02\x2b\xd3\x07\x8e\xd6\xcc" \

signature_der_string =
  "\x30\x45" \
  "\x02\x21\x00" \
  "\x83\x89\xdf\x45\xf0\x70\x3f\x39\xec\x8c\x1c\xc4\x2c\x13\x81\x0f" \
  "\xfc\xae\x14\x99\x5b\xb6\x48\x34\x02\x19\xe3\x53\xb6\x3b\x53\xeb" \
  "\x02\x20" \
  "\x09\xec\x65\xe1\xc1\xaa\xee\xc1\xfd\x33\x4c\x6b\x68\x4b\xde\x2b" \

public_key_octet_string =
  "\x04" \
  "\xfc\x97\x02\x84\x78\x40\xaa\xf1\x95\xde\x84\x42\xeb\xec\xed\xf5" \
  "\xb0\x95\xcd\xbb\x9b\xc7\x16\xbd\xa9\x11\x09\x71\xb2\x8a\x49\xe0" \
  "\xea\xd8\x56\x4f\xf0\xdb\x22\x20\x9e\x03\x74\x78\x2c\x09\x3b\xb8" \

# Verifying with openssl.
require 'openssl'
ec ='secp256k1')
key_bn =, 2)  # 2 means binary
ec.public_key =, key_bn)
result = ec.dsa_verify_asn1(digest, signature_der_string)
puts result  # => true

# Verifying with the new ecdsa gem, version 1.0.0.
require 'ecdsa'
group = ECDSA::Group::Secp256k1
point = ECDSA::Format::PointOctetString.decode(public_key_octet_string, group)
signature = ECDSA::Format::SignatureDerString.decode(signature_der_string)
result = ECDSA.valid_signature?(point, digest, signature)
puts result  # => true

As you can see above, OpenSSL requires you to make this weird OpenSSL::PKey::EC object which represents an elliptic curve but it also holds a reference to a public key, which is a point on the curve. The object is weird because you cannot say concisely what it really is using the vocabulary of the problem domain, which is ECDSA. In contrast, the ecdsa gem uses the ECDSA::Group class to represent elliptic curves and the ECDSA::Point class to represent points on those curves.

You will also see that OpenSSL's verification method takes an ASN1 string directly, instead of taking a more abstract object that represents a signature. As a result, it is not easy for the user to inspect the internal structure of that signature, which actually consists of two big numbers. In contrast, the ecdsa gem takes a ECDSA::Signature object, so you are not forced to use any particular binary format to represent the signature and it is easier to see what is going on.