Section 5.1 of FIPS 186-4 states that

An RSA key pair used for digital signatures shall only be used for one digital signature scheme (e.g., ANS X9.31, RSASSA-PKCS1 v1.5 or RSASSA-PSS)


RSA digital signature key pair shall not be used for other purposes (e.g., key establishment)

What problems can arise from not following these guidelines?

Use of same RSA key pair with RSA-OAEP and RSA-PSS is also vulnerable?


3 Answers 3


Separate use of a secret key is generally not taken into account when forming a proof of a scheme. If the key is used for other purposes than attacks may apply. Note that it is also easy to create a problematic situation. If an attacker gets access to textbook RSA operation then it would be easy to create a signature or to decrypt ciphertext. This could for instance be the case to support (future) signing schemes or RSA-KEM for key encapsulation.

In general NIST advices against using the same key pair for multiple purposes. This is mainly an issue with regards to key management. For instance, it would be a good idea to destroy a private key for signing purposes if the key may be compromised. However, destroying the private key for decryption might not be a good idea even if it has been compromised as you would not be able to decrypt messages anymore. Use cases require different life-cycles for keys; using the same key pair for different use cases requires you to have a 1:1 mapping for the life-cycle.


Here is one situation where this could be messy. Let $(N=pq, e, d)$ be an RSA-tuple that is used for signatures and encryption. (Here I use textbook RSA / textbook RSA signatures for the sake of simplicity; there are more robust schemes). Given a signature oracle (i.e. an oracle that signs any message and returns the signature), we can decrypt RSA ciphertexts.

  1. Adversary is given ciphertext $c\equiv m^e \;(\text{mod } \phi(N))$.
  2. Adversary queries signature oracle to obtain $c^d\equiv m\;(\text{mod } \phi(N))$

How realistic is access to a signature oracle? Any situation where you can explicitly obtain signatures from an authority. For example, a certificate authority gives signatures for certificates. (of course, the schemes are a lot more complicated and domain separated to prevent these types of attacks).

  • $\begingroup$ attack can be avoided by not using textbook RSA? what if one uses RSA-OAEP and RSA-PSS with same RSA key pair? $\endgroup$
    – crypt
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 5:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am not familiar with analysis of those particular schemes in this setting. But with all approaches, by enforcing key separation, you eliminate a whole class of attacks (as illustrated above). This is often called a defense in depth approach. $\endgroup$
    – Wilson
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 5:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @crypt Sometimes textbook RSA is provided on purpose. For e.g. a smart card it could be beneficial to provide support for that to support all padding modes, where the hashing & padding is supposed to take place on the device that provides the data. I'm not saying that this should be the practice by the way, just that it happens. $\endgroup$
    – Maarten Bodewes
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 10:07

What problems can arise from not following these guidelines

We loose the security reductions (of RSASSA-PSS and RSAES-OAEP) or security endorsements (for others), since they are made under the hypothesis that the RSA key is used only for the operation mode considered. And we know there is potential for problem from actual attacks that can occur when using the same key for signing (any mode), and encryption or signing by textbook RSA (a decryption or signing oracle for textbook RSA can be turned into a signing oracle for any mode).

Also to consider: a poorly conceived signature padding or implementation has the potential to leak the key itself, thus killing the security of a perfectly good system using the same key. However this is not as much to fear with RSA as it is with Rabin signature, where there are a number of attacks on this theme.

What if one uses RSA-OAEP and RSA-PSS with the same RSA key pair?

There's no known attack, but the existing security reductions no longer apply. I'd be surprised if an attack emerged, and not surprised if a security reduction for the combination could be made (e.g. from the reduction for Full Domain Hash), with a lowered proven quantitative security level perhaps.

In any case, it's good practice to stick to the principle: one usage, one key.


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