a modern crypto messaging format

Saltpack Binary Signcryption Format

The regular encryption format provides privacy and authenticity using long-term asymmetric keys, but sometimes that's not possible or practical:

  • We might want to encrypt for a key that's shared by many recipients. Doing that retains privacy, but it means that the encryption step no longer provides authenticity. (Any of the recipients could forge the message, because the MAC is no longer pairwise.)
  • We might want to encrypt for future recipients who haven't published any keys yet, using a secret that we'll distribute later.

For these cases, we need to combine encryption for privacy with signing for authenticity. This is what the saltpack signcryption mode provides. Note that this is not as simple as layering the encryption mode the signing mode. Note also that this gives up the repudiability property of the encryption mode.


At a high-level, the message is encrypted once using a symmetric key, which is shared with all recipients. The recipients may be either public Curve25519 encryption keys, or long-term 32-byte symmetric secrets. It is then signed with a long-term signing key belonging to the sender.

The message is chunked into 1MiB (= 2^20 bytes) chunks. A sequential nonce used for the encryption and MAC's ensures that the 1MiB chunks cannot be reordered. The end of the message is marked with an authenticated flag to prevent truncation attacks.

As in the encryption mode, each encrypted copy of the message encryption key is given a recipient identifier. Unlike the encryption mode, signcryption doesn't use the literal public key bytes as the identifier (in the case of an asymmetric recipient), but instead an opaque identifier derived from the recipient's key and the ephemeral sender key. This preserves recipient anonymity by default. Applications lose the ability to make suggestions like "your phone can't read this message, but your laptop can" based on the recipients list, but the intention is that distributing long-term shared symmetric keys to all of a user's devices can avoid that situation entirely. The recipient identifiers for symmetric recipients are entirely up to the application.

The signcryption scheme allows an anonymous sender by specifying a signing key that is all zeroes. In this case the signature is filled with zeroes also, and the verification step is skipped. This would be similar to using the encryption mode with an anonymous sender and a shared asymmetric recipient key, though the encryption mode wasn't designed with shared recipient keys in mind. (In particular it would be very wrong to share recipient keys in the encryption mode, if the sender was authenticated).


An signcrypted message is a series of concatenated MessagePack objects. The first is a header packet, followed by one or more payload packets, the last of which is indicated with a final packet flag.

When encoding strings, byte arrays, or arrays, pick the MessagePack encoding that will use the fewest number of bytes.

Header Packet

The header packet is a MessagePack array with these contents:

    format name,
    ephemeral public key,
    sender secretbox,
    recipients list,
  • The format name is the string "saltpack".
  • The version is a list of the major and minor versions, currently [2, 0], both encoded as positive fixnums. Note that saltpack version 1 did not include a signcryption mode.
  • The mode is the number 3, for signcryption, encoded as a positive fixnum. (1 and 2 are attached and detached signing, and 3 is signcryption.)
  • The ephemeral public key is a NaCl public encryption key, 32 bytes. The ephemeral keypair is generated at random by the sender and only used for one message.
  • The sender secretbox is a crypto_secretbox containing the sender's long-term public signing key, encrypted with the payload key from below.
  • The recipients list contains a recipient pair for each recipient key, including an encrypted copy of the payload key (see below). Note that a MessagePack array can hold at most at most 2³² − 1 elements, so therefore an encrypted message can have at most 2³² − 1 recipients.

A recipient pair is a two-element list:

    recipient identifier,
    payload key box,
  • The recipient identifier depends on the type of recipient key. For an asymmetric recipient key, the identifier is derived from shared DH output. For a symmetric key, the identifier is left to the application.
  • The payload key box is a crypto_box containing a copy of the payload key, encrypted with the recipient's public key, the ephemeral private key, and a counter nonce.

Generating a Header Packet

When composing a message, the sender follows these steps to generate the header:

  1. Generate a random 32-byte payload key.
  2. Generate a random ephemeral keypair, using crypto_box_keypair.
  3. Encrypt the sender's long-term public key signing key using crypto_secretbox with the payload key and the nonce saltpack_sender_key_sbox, to create the sender secretbox.
  4. Encrypt a copy of the payload key for each recipient, and create an identifier for each resulting secretbox. The procedure here is different for the two different types of recipients:

    For Curve25519 recipient public keys, first derive a shared symmetric key by boxing 32 zero bytes with the recipient public key, the ephemeral private key, and the nonce saltpack_derived_sboxkey, and taking the last 32 bytes of the resulting box. Secretbox the payload key using this derived symmetric key, with the nonce saltpack_recipsbXXXXXXXX, where XXXXXXXX is the 8-byte big-endian unsigned recipient index. To compute the recipient identifier, concatenate the derived symmetric key and the saltpack_recipsbXXXXXXXX nonce together, and HMAC-SHA512 them under the key saltpack signcryption box key identifier. The identifier is the first 32 bytes of that HMAC.

    For recipient symmetric keys, first derive a shared symmetric key. Concatenate the ephemeral public Curve25519 key and the recipient symmetric key, and HMAC-SHA512 them under the key saltpack signcryption derived symmetric key. The derived key is the first 32 bytes of that HMAC. Secretbox the payload key using this derived symmetric key, with the nonce saltpack_recipsbXXXXXXXX, where XXXXXXXX is the 8-byte big-endian unsigned recipient index. The recipient identifier in this case is up to the application.

  5. Collect the format name, version, and mode into a list, followed by the ephemeral public key, the sender secretbox, and the nested recipients list.

  6. Serialize the list from #5 into a MessagePack array object.
  7. Take the crypto_hash (SHA512) of the bytes from #6. This is the header hash.
  8. Serialize the bytes from #6 again into a MessagePack bin object. These twice-encoded bytes are the header packet.

Encrypting the sender's long-term public key in step #3 allows Alice to stay anonymous to eavesdroppers. If Alice wants to be anonymous to recipients as well, she can supply an all-zero signing public key in step #3. In this case, recipients should skip the signature verification step and indicate that the message is from an anonymous sender.

Parsing a Header Packet

Recipients parse the header of a message using the following steps:

  1. Deserialize the header bytes from the message stream using MessagePack. (What's on the wire is twice-encoded, so the result of unpacking will be once-encoded bytes.)
  2. Compute the crypto_hash (SHA512) of the bytes from #1 to give the header hash.
  3. Deserialize the bytes from #1 again using MessagePack to give the header list.
  4. Sanity check the format name, version, and mode.
  5. Check to see if any of the recipient's Curve25519 private keys are in the recipients' list. For each private key available, and for each recipient entry in the list, compute the identifier as in step #4 in the previous section. If any of the recipient entries match, decrypt the payload key and proceed to step #7.
  6. If no Curve25519 keys matched in the previous step, check whether any of the recipient's symmetric keys are in the message. The identifiers in this step are up to the application, and if the space of possible keys is very large, the recipient might use server assistance to look up identifiers. If any of the recipient entries match, decrypt the payload key. If not, decryption fails, and the client should report that the current user isn't a recipient of this message.
  7. Open the sender secretbox using crypto_secretbox_open with the payload key from #6 and the nonce saltpack_sender_key_sbox. This gives the sender signing key.

When parsing lists in general, if a list is longer than expected, clients should allow the extra fields and ignore them. That allows us to make future additions to the format without breaking backward compatibility.

Payload Packets

A payload packet is a MessagePack array with these contents:

    signcrypted chunk,
    final flag,
  • The signcrypted chunk is a chunk of plaintext bytes, max size 1 MiB, signed by the sender signing key and encrypted with the payload key.
  • The final flag is a boolean, true for the final payload packet, and false for all other payload packets.

The sender creates the signcrypted chunk with the following steps. For each 1 MiB chunk of plaintext:

  1. Compute the packet nonce. Take the first 16 bytes of the header hash. If this is the final packet, set the least significant bit of the last of those bytes to one (nonce[15] |= 0x01), otherwise set it to zero (nonce[15] &= 0xfe). Finally, append the 8-byte unsigned big-endian packet number, where the first payload packet is zero.
  2. Concatenate several values to form the signature input:
    • the constant string saltpack encrypted signature
    • a null byte, 0x00
    • the header hash
    • the packet nonce computed above
    • the final flag byte, 0x00 for false and 0x01 for true
    • the SHA512 hash of the plaintext
  3. Sign the signature input with the sender's long-term private signing key, producing a 64-byte Ed25519 signature. If the sender is anonymous, the signature is 64 zero bytes instead.
  4. Prepend that signature onto the front of the plaintext chunk.
  5. Encrypt the attached signature from #4 using the payload key and the packet nonce.

The recipient performs those steps in reverse:

  1. Compute the packet nonce as above.
  2. Decrypt the chunk using the payload key and the packet nonce.
  3. Take the first 64 bytes of the plaintext as the detached signature, and the rest as the payload chunk.
  4. Compute the signature input as above.
  5. Verify the detached signature from step #3 against the signature input. If the sender's public key is all zero bytes, however, then the sender is anonymous, and verification is skipped.
  6. If the signature was valid, output the payload chunk.

If a message ends with without the last packet setting the final flag to true, the receiving client must report an error that the message has been truncated.

Unlike the twice-encoded header above, payload packets are once-encoded directly to the output stream.


# header packet (on the wire, this is twice-encoded)
  # format name
  # major and minor version
  [1, 0],
  # mode (3 = signcryption)
  # ephemeral public key
  # sender secretbox
  # recipient pairs
    # the first recipient pair
      # a recipient identifier (the symmetric-vs-asymmetric type is indistinguishable)
      # payload key box
    # subsequent recipient pairs...

# payload packet
  # signcrypted chunk
  # final flag