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AES-GCM has a limit on the length of the plaintext it encrypts: $2^{39} - 256$ bits. But is this limit per key or per (key, nonce)? That is, if I encrypt a message with the maximum length, and encrypt another message with the same key but different nonce, will it be secure still?

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It is per message. I.e. per (key, nonce) -pair.

The reason it exists is that GCM uses CTR mode for encryption with (normally) a 32-bit counter. That means you can only encrypt $2^{32}$ blocks, i.e. $2^{39}$ bits with AES. The 256 bits that are subtracted are due to authentication.

So you can encrypt multiple maximum-length messages securely.

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  • $\begingroup$ actually per spec there is a soft block limit of $2^{64}$ and a hard nonce limit of $2^{32}$ (if not using 96-bit IVs), whichever comes first $\endgroup$ – Richie Frame Jan 11 '16 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ @RichieFrame, good to know, but I guess that doesn't really change the answer? $\endgroup$ – otus Jan 11 '16 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ @RichieFrame: What does the soft block limit mean? $\endgroup$ – Siyuan Ren Jan 11 '16 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ @SiyuanRen the soft block limit is a recommended maximum authenticated block count with a single key, soft because it is not a strict limit. Encrypting too many blocks or generating too many authentication tags can allow recovery of the hash subkey, and thus forging of new tags. $\endgroup$ – Richie Frame Jan 11 '16 at 21:06
  • $\begingroup$ @RichieFrame: What are those limit if the nounce if 96-bit? $\endgroup$ – Siyuan Ren Jan 12 '16 at 3:54

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