a modern crypto messaging format

Saltpack ASCII Armor Format

Like PGP, saltpack encrypted and signed messages are binary formats. We need to wrap them in ASCII armor, to let people paste them into websites and apps that handle text.

The main building block of this format is a generic bytes-to-characters encoding, similar to Base64, which we call BaseX. We chose not to use Base64 mainly because we want to avoid special characters. You should be able to paste an encoded message anywhere, without worrying about how punctuation is interpreted. Lots of modern applications implement something like Markdown, where they interpret slashes and underscores as italics and strip them out. Even something as innocuous as ... might turn into and break decoding.

We define the BaseX encoding scheme below, in a way that's independent of any particular alphabet or block size. For saltpack we then select a 62-character alphabet (all the digits and letters, in ASCII order) and a 32-byte input block size, which gives us 43-character output blocks and a packing efficiency of 74.42%, compared to Base64's 75%. Finally we specify how the decoder recognizes the header and footer lines and strips whitespace.

Here's the saltpack armor encoding of a signed message:

BEGIN SALTPACK SIGNED MESSAGE. kYM5h1pg6qz9UMn j6G7KB2OUX3itkn C30ZZBPzjc8STxf i06TIQhJ4wRFSMU hFa9gmcvl2AW8Kk qmTdLkkppPieOWq o9aWouAaMpQ9kWt eMlv17NOUUr9Gp3 fClo7khRnJ12T7j 6ZVkfDXUpznTp57 0btBywDV848jyp2 EceloYGiuOolWim 8HCx77p22iulWja ixShPFcOi1mkG2i 4Iur3QfGYeKpflx a1GXmvQLi1G99mH 625dH5HGcQ63pOb K1i7g3lXIQ9Kcfy NRDfdBIDMHJaJf1 uTKB4GJ9l4M7glS 07h9QsU4gPueyNC hzm6LmA9CFllzxy 8ZA0Ys5qDnSuwaN obowMNXpbm1nlsx fXFtMolx6ghLuEw 2s8f1jBxBQjQPwa GG90h5BbpoWGPk6 dRsou5kdNxcLaFJ KKXWTUR2h9P0P7p 9UYRsQ6QqGNiwmG wXC7YFh1xCUdAib gjZbUYUKN6KVLem hZI6XYtX2l1w8d5 jL8KJ5ZZpKhJ4JC faVWCU2VRtUFgQO ejKm6wjs6NcekTd KK4bOh5kr87cyRu 0aDjEtfMSyZZTG5 hIrEWcMq1Iotzrx iRdmY5GYf2Kx0Br 4K0rqrj8ZGa. END SALTPACK SIGNED MESSAGE.

BaseX Encoding

The BaseX encoding scheme converts a block of bytes into a block of characters in some alphabet. It's defined for any alphabet and block size. The goal of the scheme is to work exactly like base conversion in normal arithmetic. To encode a block of B bytes with an alphabet of length A:

  1. Compute C, the length of the output character block. C is the smallest integer such that 256^B <= A^C. (^ means "to the power of" here and below.) The most direct way to compute C is ceiling(B*8/log_2(A)).
  2. Interpret the bytes as a big-endian unsigned integer. For blocks longer than 8 bytes, this usually requires a bignum library.
  3. Convert that number into a list of C digits in base A, by repeatedly taking the remainder mod A and then dividing by A. Order the digits from most to least significant. There may be leading zeroes.
  4. Map the digits to letters in the target alphabet.

To decode a block of C characters with an alphabet of length A:

  1. Compute B, the length of the output byte block. B is the largest integer such that 256^B <= A^C. The most direct way to compute B is floor(C*log_2(A)/8).
  2. Using the alphabet, map the characters in the block into a list of base A digits.
  3. Multiply those digits by successive powers of A, and sum them together into a number, with the leftmost digit being the most significant.
  4. Serialize that number as a B-byte big-endian unsigned integer.

Note that unlike Base64, there is no special treatment of "short blocks". Any block of any length gets encoded with the same rules. But like Base64, when you use BaseX to encode a stream, you should select a fixed block size and chunk your input into blocks of that size, with an optional short block at the end.


Here's an example using our familiar 10-character alphabet, where the letter 0 is 0, the letter 1 is 1, and so on up to 9. If we wanted to encode the 2-byte block 0x00ff in this alphabet, we'd do this:

  1. Compute C, the length of the output character block. The largest possible 2-byte value is 65535, so we'll need five decimal digits to represent two bytes.
  2. Convert the bytes into a number. The bytes 0x00ff, interpreted as a big-endian unsigned integer, equal 255.
  3. Convert the number into digits. The five digit representation of 255, from most to least significant, is 0-0-2-5-5.
  4. Map the digits to letters. In this simple alphabet, the result is 00255.

To decode 00255 back into bytes, we'd do this:

  1. Compute B, the length of the output byte block. The largest possible value we can represent in five characters of our alphabet is 99999. That's enough for two bytes (max 65535) but not enough for three bytes (max 16777215), so B is 2.
  2. Map the alphabet characters into a list of numbers. 00255 becomes 0-0-2-5-5.
  3. Sum the digits into a single number. We compute 0*10000 + 0*1000 + 2*100 + 5*10 + 5 and get 255.
  4. Serialize the number into B big-endian unsigned bytes. The number 255 as a 2-byte big-endian unsigned integer is 0x00ff.

Illegal Blocks

Any block of bytes is legal for encoding, but some blocks of characters are illegal for decoding. Two errors can come up:

  • The number encoded by the C characters might be too big to fit into B bytes. For example in the 10-character alphabet above, the block 70000 is illegal. A 5 character block in that alphabet decodes to 2 bytes, and 2-byte integers only go up to 65535 (0xffff).
  • C might not be minimal for the corresponding B. For example, a 4-character block of digits is too small to encode 2 bytes, and 1 byte only requires 3 characters, so 4-character blocks are illegal in a 10-character alphabet.

In both cases implementations should return errors, rather than confronting the eternal mystery of what these blocks could mean.

Efficient Block Sizes

To pick an efficient block size, it helps to make a table of B and C values, using the formula for C from above:

C = ceiling( B * 8 / log_2(A) )

Here's the table for a 62-character alphabet, showing only the block sizes where efficiency goes up:

bytes characters efficiency
1 2 50.00%
2 3 66.67%
5 7 71.43%
8 11 72.73%
11 15 73.33%
14 19 73.68%
17 23 73.91%
20 27 74.07%
23 31 74.19%
26 35 74.29%
29 39 74.36%
32 43 74.42%
227 305 74.43%

We can compare these efficiency figures to the theoretical maximum for a 62-character alphabet:

max_efficiency = bits_per_char / bits_per_byte
               = log_2(62) / 8
               ≈ 0.7443

The table above helped us pick the 32-byte block size for saltpack. It hits an efficiency sweet spot without being absurdly large.

Comparison to Base64

If we use the 64-character Base64 alphabet with BaseX to encode a block of 3 bytes, the resulting 4 characters are actually identical to the Base64 encoding. However, the result is not the same for 1- or 2-byte blocks. That's because when there are leftover bits in the encoding space, Base64 "leans left", like this:

Input:                M      |       a
ASCII:               77      |      97
Bit pattern:  0 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 _ _
Digits:            19    |    22     |     4
Letters:            T    |     W     |     E

Note that the third output character above encodes two trailing bits that will always be zero. In contrast, BaseX effectively "leans right", packing itself into the least significant bits of the encoding space, and encoding two leading bits that will always be zero:

Input:                    M      |       a
ASCII:                   77      |      97
Bit pattern:  _ _ 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1
Digits:            4     |    53     |    33
Letters:            E    |     1     |     h

If Base64 compatibility were a goal, we could have added an extra encoding step after converting the input bytes to an integer, where we bitshifted that integer 2 places to the left. (For a 1-byte block, the equivalent would be 4 places to the left.) The general rule for all alphabets and block sizes could've been to compute the number of "extra bits" available in the encoding space and do this shift.

However, BaseX doesn't bother with this adjustment, for a few reasons:

  • Theoretical Base64 compatiblity isn't worth very much if we don't use a 64-character alphabet.
  • Determining the number of bits to shift takes extra work and makes the implementation more complicated.
  • Leaning right in the encoding space makes the output easier to eyeball.

The last point is clear when we look at how single-byte blocks are encoded. In standard Base64, the bytes 0x00, 0x01, and 0x02 encode to AA, AQ, and Ag. In the same alphabet, BaseX would encodes those bytes as AA, AB, and AC. The 62-character saltpack alphabet starts with the ASCII numerals, so those bytes encode to 00, 01, and 02, which is even nicer.

Comparison to Base85

Similarly, if we use a Base85 alphabet with BaseX to encode a 4-byte block, the result turns out exactly the same as the Base85 encoding of that block. (Except the block of all zeroes, which some Base85 encodings represent with z as a special case.) But also like Base64, the result is different for short blocks.

In variants that support short blocks, Base85 encoding pads a short byte block with zero bytes, and then strips the same number of extra characters off the end of the encoded string. That much is exactly like Base64. However unlike Base64, because 85 is not a power of 2, the stripped characters are not guaranteed to be zero digits. For decoding, Base85 pads the short character block with u, the highest digit in the alphabet. The resulting number is generally larger than what was encoded, but the difference is guaranteed not to overflow the extra zero bytes. (There are as many padding bytes as there are padding digits, and the digits only go up to 84.) So when the padding bytes are stripped, what's left ends up being the same as what was encoded.

We could've generalized this padding scheme to other bases and block sizes. We would have to be careful with the padding characters, though. We'd want to strip off as many output characters as possible without overflowing the padding bytes, and at larger block sizes this is more than one-character-per-byte. Computing the right number of characters to strip would have a similar shape to the "extra bits" computation in the previous section.

As with the Base64-compatibility-shift, though, we avoid this sort of scheme for BaseX. It would have the same drawbacks: limited value, extra complexity, and a less intuitive encoded result. Also because we have no intention of replicating the 4-zeroes special case (z), or the even-more-obscure 4-spaces special case (y), we wouldn't be able to achieve Base85 decoding compatibility anyway.

Comparison to Base65536

Base65536 is an "encoding" that tries to fit as much data as possible into a tweet. It works because Twitter's 140-character limit is defined over Unicode code points rather than actual ecoded bytes. So by picking an alphabet of thousands of Unicode characters, we can encode more than one byte per character. Base65535 is able to fit 255 bytes into just 128 code points.

BaseX works over any alphabet, including long ones. Which leads us to wonder, how long can a Twitter alphabet be? The largest encodable Unicode code point is 1,114,111 (U+10FFFF). However, Twitter does NFC Unicode normalization, so we have to be careful to avoid code points that don't have the NFC_Quick_Check property. We also need to avoid certain Unicode categories: the Control, Format, and Separator categories (because Twitter sometimes strips them) and the Surrogate category (because it's invalid in UTF8). What's left, if we didn't miss anything and until Twitter changes something, is 1,110,602 characters that can pass through a tweet unscathed. How many bytes can we encode with that, if we use a 140-character block?

B = floor( C * log_2(A) / 8 )
  = floor( 140 * log_2(1110602) / 8 )
  = 351

Here's a tweet encoding the first 351 bytes of lorem ipsum.

Framing the BaseX Payload

The BaseX payload is surrounded ('framed') by a header and footer. Rules for parsing them appear here.

  1. Collect input up to the first period. This is the header.
  2. Assert that the header matches the regex
    [>\n\r\t ]*BEGIN[>\n\r\t ]+([a-zA-Z0-9]+)?[>\n\r\t ]+SALTPACK[>\n\r\t ]+(ENCRYPTED[>\n\r\t ]+MESSAGE)|(SIGNED[>\n\r\t ]+MESSAGE)|(DETACHED[>\n\r\t ]+SIGNATURE)[>\n\r\t ]*
    We match against > for compatibility with mail clients that use it for quoting. The optional word is an application name (like 'KEYBASE'). The last two words give the mode of the message.
  3. Collect input up to the second period. This is the payload. If the implementation is streaming, it may decode the payload before the following steps.
  4. Collect input up to the third period. This is the footer.
  5. Assert that the footer matches the header, with END instead of BEGIN.

We use periods to delimit the header and footer to make parsing easier. Although we've been careful to avoid special characters in the payload, we're not worried about these periods getting garbled (into for example), because they only occur one at a time.

The payload is decoded as follows:

  1. Strip all characters that match the regex [>\n\r\t ].
  2. Chunk the characters into blocks of 43. The last block may be short.
  3. Decode each of these blocks with BaseX, using the 62-character alphabet 0123456789ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz (all the digits and letters, in ASCII order).

Since whitespace gets stripped, the encoder has some flexibility in formatting. Our encoder emits a space every 15 characters and a newline every 200 words. That's what felt nicest when we tested it in different terminals and messaging apps. Because the decoder doesn't rely on this spacing, we can change it in the future.

Note that the 15-character visible word boundaries are unrelated to the 43-character BaseX block boundaries. The visible words go away when we strip whitespace.