I have been trying to figure out the encryption key space, and cardinality of 1024-bit RSA. From my understanding, the key generated from 1024-bit will be primes greater than $2^{1023}$ but less than $2^{1024}$. So, there are approximately $8\times10^{307}$ types of keys that can be used.

Is this the key space or the cardinality, and how do you distinguish the two from RSA ?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Actually, for 1024-bit RSA, the primes generated will typically be 512 bits each... $\endgroup$
    – poncho
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 21:02

2 Answers 2



In RSA, an encryption key is a pair of integers $(N,e)$ with $N$ the product of $m\ge2$ distinct odds secret primes $r_i$ (with $0<i\le m$), and $e$ is such that $\gcd(e,\lambda(N))=1$ where $\lambda(N)=\operatorname{lcm}(r_1-1,\dots,r_m-1)$ is the Carmichael function. It follows that $e$ is odd. Typically, other conditions are added, like $e\ge 3$ (because $e=1$ gives no security), or that each of the $r_i$ is large for some definition of that (because small $r_i$ can be easily found from $N$, and then are no longer secret). Other conditions are commonly added, and discussed later in this answer.

The most natural definition of encryption key space is the set of pairs $(N,e)$ matching the applicable conditions defined in a particular variant of RSA. The cardinality of the encryption key space is the number of elements in that set if it is finite, else the cardinality is $\aleph_0$ (the cardinality of $\mathbb N$ and all countable sets).

Strictly speaking, by the definition above, the cardinality of the encryption key space of 1024-bit RSA is $\aleph_0$, because we put no upper limit on $e$.

Counting classes of equivalent encryption keys

Different encryption keys $(N,e)$ and $(N',e')$ can be equivalent; that is encryption with $(N',e')$ (including with random padding, which is necessary to make RSA encryption secure) can always be reversed by using a decryption key $(N,d)$ corresponding to $(N,e)$. This occurs when one of the following holds:

  • $N=N'$ and $e\equiv e'\pmod{\lambda(N)}$;
  • for degenerate keys $e\equiv1\pmod{\lambda(N)}$, $e'\equiv1\pmod{\lambda(N')}$, and the bitsize of $N$ and $N'$ such that padding remains compatible; with the two common PKCS#1 paddings, that's when $\lceil\log_2(N)/8\rceil=\lceil\log_2(N')/8\rceil$.

We can thus use an alternate definition of encryption key space where we assimilate equivalent encryption keys (technically: by considering an element of the set as being an equivalence class of the equivalence relation among $(N,e)$ pairs that we just defined).

Now, for $k$-bit $N$

  • there are $2^{k-2}$ odd $k$-bit integers, thus no more possible $N$;
  • for each $N$ we have exactly $\varphi(\lambda(N))$ equivalence classes of encryption keys (where $\varphi$ is the Euler totient function), thus less than $N/4$.

There are thus less than $3\cdot2^{2k-6}$ equivalence classes of $k$-bit encryption keys, about $2^{2043.6}$. This bound could be slightly improved with a better estimate of $\varphi(\lambda(N))$, and removing those $N$ that are either prime or not square-free.

Conditions commonly added to RSA keys

  1. $m=2$ (that is $N$ product of two primes, as in the original RSA paper); this is also mandated by FIPS 186-4. In that case, customarily, we note $p=r_1$ and $q=r_2$.
  2. $\lceil\log_2N\rceil=k$ for $k$ in some limited set, that is $N$ has an exactly prescribed bit length (because that's good for interoperability); FIPS 186-4 mandates $k\in\{1024,2048,3072\}$, with $k=1024$ deprecated.
  3. Bounds on individual primes $r_i$, such as $2^{(k-1)/m}<r_i<2^{k/m}$ (this insures condition 2 for any choice of the $r_i$; helps interoperability of private keys in CRT format; and gives protection against some factorization algorithms). FIPS 186-4 mandates that.
  4. $e\ge e_\text{min}$. Typical values are:
    • $e_\text{min}=3$ (because that's the fastest secure value of $e$ for RSA using good padding); that's mandated by PKCS#1.
    • $e_\text{min}=2^{16}+1$ (because that's less insecure than $e=3$ when insecure padding is used, and other debatable reasons); FIPS 186-4 mandates that.
  5. $e\le e_\text{max}$. Typical values are:
    • $e_\text{max}=e_\text{min}$, which fixes $e$, simplifying things.
    • $e_\text{max}=2^{16}+1$ (this is the most common $e$ around, and I know no reason to use a larger one).
    • $e_\text{max}=2^{2^l}-1$ with $l\in\{5,6,7,8\}$, because that puts an end to using ludicrously large $e$ that waste time, energy, and memory. FIPS 186-4 mandates it with $l=8$.
    • $e_\text{max}=N-1$; that's mandated by PKCS#1. Notice that with this definition, there are always equivalent keys.
  6. Each $r_i-1$ and each $r_i+1$ is known to have a large prime factor, for some definition of large. The rationale is to render some simple factorization algorithms hopeless, and for moderate $\max(\log_2r_i)$ without such requirement it could make sense for an adversary to attempt using these algorithms on each one of a great many $N$, rather than using equivalent effort trying to factor a single $N$ using better algorithms. When $k=1024$, FIPS 186-4 mandates this, with large defined as $>2^{101}$; when $k=2048$ (resp. $k=3072$) this becomes an optional requirement, and large becomes $>2^{141}$ (resp. $>2^{171}$).
  7. For $m=2$, it is common to require that $|p-q|>\Delta$. The only benefits are a simple counterargument to someone pretending that Fermat factorization can factor $N$, and catching a few of the many things that can go wrong in an implementation. FIPS 186-4 sets $\Delta=2^{k/2-100}$.
  8. In addition to condition 6, there might be some upper bound on how large the largest (known) prime factors of $r_i-1$ and $r_i+1$ are. Refer to FIPS 186-4 which has several options in this regard.
  9. In addition to the requirement that each $r_i-1$ has a large prime factor $u$, it has been recommended that $u-1$ has a large prime factor; see this question.
  10. One of many particular key generation algorithm might be specified/used, which will put arbitrary constraints on the $r_i$. For example, algorithm B.3.4 of FIPS 186-4 specifies a deterministic algorithm to generate $N$ from a random seed of exactly $security\_strength$ bits, which (by reference to NIST SP 800-57) must be $80$ (resp. $112$, $128$) when $k=1024$ (resp. $2048$, $3072$).

Evaluating cardinality for a common set of requirements

As example I'll use $m=2$ (cond. 1), $k=1024$ (cond. 2), $a<p<b$ and $a<q<b$ with $a=2^{(k-1)/2}=2^{511.5}$ and $b=2^{k/2}=2^{512}$ (cond. 3), $e=3$ (cond. 4 and 5).

The density of primes near a large $x$ is about $1/\log(x)$, it varies little for $a<x<b$, thus the number of primes in range $]a\dots b[$ is about $t=(b-a)/\log({a+b\over2})\approx2^{501.8}$. Of these, a proportion of about $e-1\over e$ can be used given the requirement $\gcd(e,\lambda(N))=1$. Given that $p\cdot q=q\cdot p$, the cardinality is thus about $(t{e-1\over e})^2/2\approx2^{1001.3}$.

Different key generation requirements can yield vastly different cardinality. For example, the cardinality for 1024-bit RSA with fixed $e$ using algorithm B.3.4 of FIPS 186-4 (see req. 10) is at most $2^{80}$ (and close to that if the seed can take all possible values).

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, would upvote twice if I could. $\endgroup$
    – Aleph
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ fgrieu, Thank you for taking the time to write this detailed explanation. I now have a much greater understanding of the key space and cardinality of RSA, along with a better understanding of RSA in general. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Mostly excellent, but in #7 I think you meant m=2 (primes) not k=2 (bits) $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2015 at 11:05

A keyspace is the set of all possible keys; it's a set. The cardinality of the keyspace is an integer, and is the number of elements in the keyspace. There is no possibility of confusion, because one is a set and the other is an integer.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer cpast. So correct me if i'm wrong, 1024-bit key RSA uses 2 primes each 512 bits. Then the keyspace is the set of primes from 2^511 to 2^512 and the cardinality would be the total number of elements in this set? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 21:21
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Actually, the keyspace would be the set of prime pairs between $2^{511}$ and $2^{512}$. Actually, it's somewhat less, because we insist that the product be between $2^{1023}$ and $2^{1024}$. The set of prime pairs between $2^{511.5}$ and $2^{512}$ is one way to evaluate it. $\endgroup$
    – poncho
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ To avoid duplicate moduli we want $p<q$, that about halves the cardinality. And then, what about $e$ ? Setting a fixed $e=3$ reduces the cardinality by a factor of about $4/9$. If $e$ is allowed to vary, and we defined an RSA key as $(p\cdot q,e)$, our cardinality increases (and we should account for equivalent $e$ if very large $e$ are allowed). And then, many practical RSA key generation algorithms only generate primes of a certain form (like, such that $p-1$ and $p+1$ each have a known prime factor of a fixed bit size) and that reduces the cardinality of what they could generate. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 6:15

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