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  • Description
  • Algorithm
  • Block diagrams
  • Mathematical functions
  • Implementation
RC4 is a symmetric stream cipher, known and praised for its speed and simplicity.
Stream cipher with symmetric secret key
Key length = up to 2048 bits
Designed by Ron Rivest of RSA Security in 1987. Implementation of RC4 cipher wasn't known until September 1994 when it was anonymously posted to the Cypherpunks mailing list. RC4 is often referred to as ARCFOUR or ARC4 to avoid problems with RC4 trademarked name. The cipher is officially named after "Rivest Cipher 4" but the acronym RC is alternatively understood to stand for "Ron's Code".

RC4 is one of the most popular ciphers. It is widely used in popular protocols, for example to protect Internet traffic - TLS (Transport Layer Security) or to protect wireless networks - WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy).

RC4 is a stream symmetric cipher. It operates by creating long keystream sequences and adding them to data bytes.

RC4 encrypts data by adding it XOR byte by byte, one after the other, to keystream bytes. The whole RC4 algorithm is based on creating keystream bytes. The keystream is received from a 1-d table called the T table.

Creating the Table

The T table is 256-byte long, and is created based on the secret key. It is created as a first step of both encryption and decryption. The following operations must be performed in order to create the table:

  1. Every cell in the table is filled with a number equal to its position. The positions of the table are numbered ​from 0 to 255.
  2. A new temporary helper variable is created and set to 0.
  3. For each element in the array the two following operations are performed (note, that the values ​are ​from 0 to 255):
    1. The value of temporary variable is updated (see Mathematical functions tab).
    2. The number in the array at the current position is swapped with the number in the array at the position determined by the temporary variable.

Encryption and Decryption

During encryption and decryption the keystream bytes are constantly generated. They are added XOR to message bytes. The keystream bytes are produced based on the T table. The following steps are performed:

  1. Two helper variables p1 and p2 are created and set to 0.
  2. The variable p1 is increased by 1 and the result is modulo divided by 256.
  3. The variable p2 is increased by the value in the array T at the position determined by the temporary variable p1 (T[p1]). Then, the result is divided modulo by 256.
  4. The value in the array at the position p1 is swapped with the value in the array at the position p2.
  5. The value in the array at the position p1 is added to the value in the array at the position p2. Then, the result is modulo divided by 256 and assigned to the new helper variable p3.
  6. The value in the array at the position p3 is a new keystream byte.
  7. If more keystream bytes are needed, all the steps from the point II onwards should be repeated.

Speed of RC4

The RC4 algorithm is designed especially to be used in software solutions because it only manipulates single bytes. Unlike many other stream ciphers, it doesn't use LFSR registers, which can be implemented optimally in hardware solutions but they are not so fast in applications.

Security of RC4

The cipher was created quite long time ago and it has some weaknesses which have been improved in modern stream ciphers. It is possible to find keystream byte values that are slightly more likely to occur than other combinations. In fact, over the last 20 years, several bytes like that have been found. Some attacks based on this weakness were discovered.

Probably the most important weakness of RC4 cipher is the insufficient key schedule. Because of that issue, it is possible to obtain some information about the secret key based on the first bytes of keystream. It is recommended to simply discard a number of first bytes of the keystream. This improvement is known as RC4-dropN, where N is usually a multiple of 256.

RC4 does not take a separate nonce alongside the key for every encryption. Therefore, the cryptosystem must take care of unique values of keystream and specify how to combine the nonce with the original secret key. The best idea would be to hash the nonce and the key together to generate the base for creating the RC4 keystream. Unfortunately, many applications simply concatenate key and nonce, which make them vulnerable to so called related key attacks. This weakness of RC4 was used in Fluhrer, Mantin and Shamir (FMS) attack against WEP, published in 2001.

Modification of the temporary variable during creating the keystream table
During initialisation of the T table (256-byte long) used for generating keystream, the value of temporary variable is updated for every element in the table. The updated temporary variable is then used for modifying other numbers in the table.
    xhelp = (xhelp + wcurrent + kcurrent mod len(K)) mod 256 ,
  • xhelp - the temporary helper variable,
  • wcurrent - the value in the table T at the current position,
  • kcurrent mod len(K) - the value in the key array which is being created at the current position dividing modulo by the length of the key (because the key may be shorter than 256 bytes),
  • mod 256 - modulo division by 256 (that is, the remainder of division)

After the operations above, the current value in the T table is swapped with the value at the position determined by the temporary variable. All positions in the table are numbered from 0.

Keystream Initialisation

Initialisation a T table, used for generation of keystream bytes. K is the secret key, that is an array of length k_len.

for i from 0 to 255
    T[i] := i
x_temp := 0
for i from 0 to 255
    x_temp := (x_temp + T[i] + K[i mod k_len]) mod 256
    swap(T[i], T[x_temp])

Keystream Generation

For keystream bytes generation, the loop below is executed as long as new bytes are needed.

p1 := 0
p2 := 0
while GeneratingOutput
    p1 := (p1 + 1) mod 256
    p2 := (p2 + T[p1]) mod 256
    swap(T[p1], T[p2])
    send(T[(T[p1] + T[p2]) mod 256])