# Using the same RSA keypair to sign and encrypt

The RSA signature operation is basically the same as encrypting with the private key. In particular, both operations use the same kind of keys.

Is it safe to use the same RSA keypair both for encryption / decryption and for signing / verification?

• Depends on tricky details of the padding scheme you use and your implementation. It'd generally discouraged to reuse keys like that. Dec 3, 2013 at 9:42
• Encrypting with the private key has little sense since everyone knowing the public key can snoop into the message. Usually the other party public key is used to encrypt, as explained in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSA_%28cryptosystem%29#Encryption. Dec 3, 2013 at 17:18
• If you use the same structure for signing and encrypting, then Bob can send you a hash as a ciphertext for you to decrypt with your private key, you're signing it thus, and then asking for the resulting plaintext as autentication so retrieving a valid signature. Dec 3, 2013 at 17:34
• I have a scheme that does signcryption with RSA using the same pair of RSA keys (without employing hashing), see Example 3S in my software in mok-kong-shen.de May 21, 2017 at 16:33

The short answer is no. This is a general piece of wisdom in cryptography: never use the same key for more than one thing. A “thing” means a specific scheme where all the parameters are fixed apart from the key itself and the message size. Don't use the same key to encrypt and sign; don't use the same key with both PKCS#1v1.5 and PSS; don't use the same key with different hash functions.

If you use the raw RSA operation ($$M^d \bmod n$$ or $$M^e \bmod n$$), then no, it is unsafe to use the same key, because an attacker could trick the private key holder into signing a message $$M$$ (i.e. generating $$M^d$$) which is actually an encrypted message ($$M = P^e$$), thus allowing the attacker to recover the original plaintext ($$(P^e)^d = P$$). (The dual attack leads to a forgery.) However, the raw RSA operation has a whole range of other flaws that make it unsafe as an encryption or signature scheme.

Encryption and signature schemes based on RSA use padding modes. The standard padding modes include discriminants so that an encryption payload does not look like a signature payload. Therefore, it is technically safe, cryptographically speaking, to use the same RSA key pair for signature and encryption, provided that the key pair is used safely for signature and used safely for encryption. Here, I mean safe in a narrow sense, assuming a “perfect” world where everything that should stay secret, remains secret.

The thing is, the world is not perfect. Implementations of RSA can leak partial information through side channels. Keys get compromised. Protocols using RSA sometimes use it in ways that are very brittle.

Using the same key for both encryption and signature can exacerbates weaknesses. RSA has a history of weaknesses, not in the mathematical algorithm itself (once you use proper padding), but in the way it's implemented. Decryption, especially, requires a lot of care, because some inputs are invalid, and the mere act of revealing whether an input is valid or not can allow oracle attacks, the best known of which is due to Bleichenbacher. The way RSA decryption is used in TLS¹ exacerbates this because it creates a second reason for invalidity: a ciphertext can be invalid for the decryption operation, or can be valid for decryption but decrypt to something invalid. This has led to a long series of practical attacks against TLS cipher suites that use RSA decryption. Using the same key for both encryption and signature has two downsides. Most obviously, if a vulnerability in decryption allows the attacker to recover the key, then anything that relies on a signature is also broken. Less obviously, even if the attacker can't recover the key, but can get some partial information about the decryption of invalid ciphertexts, they may be able to forge signatures. This is the case, for example, with the CAT variant of Bleichenbacher's attack, so that even clients that do not accept RSA decryption ciphersuites are still at risk if the server uses the same key for RSA signature ciphersuites.

Another reason is key management. Signature keys and encryption keys have different requirements in terms of backups, access control, repudiation, etc. The fallback for a signature key in case of a catastrophic event is to destroy it to avoid future forgeries, so a signature key does not need to be backed up extensively. Conversely, the fallback for an encryption key is to keep it around to decrypt existing documents, so it needs to be backed up reliably. In case of a leak of a signature key, pre-existing documents are not affected; it is only newly produced signatures that must be repudiated. Conversely, in case of a leak of an encryption key, the confidentiality of all pre-existing documents is at risk, whereas new documents simply need to be encrypted with different keys. The constraints push in different directions, so the keys need to be managed differently, they need to be different.

¹ That is, ciphersuites whose name starts with TLS_RSA_. Ciphersuites whose name starts with TLS_(EC)DH(E)_RSA use RSA signature, not RSA decryption, and are a lot more robust.

• This is the right answer to this question! I hope it eventually makes it to the top vote-wise, lol. Nov 25, 2016 at 0:01
• You say: "it is safe, cryptographically speaking, to use the same RSA key pair for signature and encryption". Can you please point to where in the literature this has been proven? I don't believe it to be widely accepted: there may be no known attacks, but I do not believe your claim has been proven as true. May 17, 2019 at 10:06
• @arthurmilton Nobody has proved this because nobody has proved that either RSA signature or RSA encryption alone is safe. I'm not aware of a conditional proof assuming that both are safe separately, but they may well exist. PKCS#1 (the standard that codifies RSA) says that it's not recommended to use the same key for both and that doing that “may be [not is] essential to maintain provable security”, but doesn't forbid it and says that there aren't “any known bad interactions”. Which is a bit exaggerated given that using both can worsen attacks, which PKCS#1 does mention and my answer should. May 17, 2019 at 17:47

Short Answer: NO, it is not safe, do NOT do this.

Longer Answer: You are true that you can use your RSA keypair for both operations. This approach is used in many applications and scenarios. There are Web Services or Single Sign-On implementations, which enforce you to use the same key pair for both operations. X.509 certificates do not allow you (by default) to determine, if a given RSA key must be used for encryption/decryption or for signing/verification. It is possible to enforce this only with specific extensions or certificate fields, which are not mandatory...

However, in cryptography it is in general a very bad practice to use the same key for two operations. For example, if one of the operations gets compromized, it can break security properties of the other operations where the same key is used.

There is one practical example in the RSA key setting. Imagine a server which decrypts ciphertexts and signs messages with an RSA key. Imagine this server is vulnerable to a specific chosen-ciphertext attack (Bleichenbacher's attack), which allows an adversary to decrypt arbitrary ciphertexts without knowing server's private key. If the server uses the same RSA key pair for encryption/decryption and signing/verification, using this attack the adversary is also able to create arbitrary server signatures. This would not be possible if the server would use distinct RSA key pairs for these operations.

Please see our paper for more details: http://www.nds.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/research/publications/backwards-compatibility/ Section 4 discusses the problem of key reuse in public key setting. Section 5.3 shows practical examples of these attacks and their impact. Sections 5.4 and 5.5 discuss countermeasures and their application by different vendors.

• The Bleichenbacher example is a bad one — the key isn't used safely for encryption, so there can't be an expectation that it's used safely for signing either. The real reason is key management. Dec 5, 2013 at 16:10
• The user wanted just to know, if it is secure to use the same key pair for both operations..my example shows what could go wrong (an insecure algorithm can affect the secure one) so I think it is appropriate. Even though, there could of course exist different reasons not to use the same key pair for both operations... Dec 10, 2013 at 13:37