The Arcfour Stream Cipher

Stream ciphers are one of the two types of symmetric key algorithms, which is when the same key is used for encryption and decryption. They follow this simple concept: take a good pseudo-random number generator and combine, usually by XOR, its output with your plaintext stream. This is very similiar to the one-time pad, but the random pad is pseudo-random rather than truly random. The key is the seed (or part of one) for the PRNG.

Probably the most well known stream cipher is the extremely simple, yet cryptographically strong, Arcfour algorithm. The official name is actually RC4, which comes from RSA Security where it was developed. It was a trade secret until someone anonymously leaked the algorithm to the public. The name RC4 is still trademarked, though, so Arcfour is generally used instead, meaning "Alleged RC4" (alleged because RSA Security never confirmed the algorithm as being RC4). You have almost certainly used the cipher yourself, because it is used in applications such as WEP and SSL.

The algorithm has two parts: the key schedule algorithm and pseudo-random generation algorithm. The key schedule uses the key, and possible a non-secret initialization vector, to set up the state of the PRNG. The state is an array of length 256 holding all of the values from 0 to 255 in some order, along with two integers (initialized to 0 after the key schedule). The algorithm looks like this,

for i from 0 to 255
    S[i] := i
j := 0
for i from 0 to 255
    j := (j + S[i] + key[i mod keylength]) mod 256

The PRNG deals with one byte at a time, emitting a stream of bytes,

i := 0
j := 0
while GeneratingOutput:
    i := (i + 1) mod 256
    j := (j + S[i]) mod 256
    output S[(S[i] + S[j]) mod 256]

If you implement this in C and use the char type, you can toss the modulus parts because they will just work automatically.

Now you just XOR your message with the output of the PRNG. The Wikipedia article probably explains it better than I can, so check it out if you still don't follow.

Now, Arcfour has some flaws. Specifically, the algorithm itself doesn't specify how an initialization vector is applied, which is important. Using a plan key twice is bad it allows an adversary to get information easily. For example, Lets say you have two messages A and B. You use the same key k, which will produce the same keystream K. Now, you create your two ciphertexts CA and CB

CA = A ^ K
CB = B ^ K

But notice if the adversary has both ciphertexts,

CA ^ CB = A ^ K ^ B ^ K = A ^ B

They are left with your two original messages XORed together. Let me illustrate: we have two messages as bitmap images (here as PNGs for the web),

Plain pattern GNU Head

Encrypt them using the same key. In this case, my key was "somekey".

Plain pattern encrypted GNU Head encrypted

If the adversary has both of these second "images", she can XOR them together (having no knowledge of the key!) and get this,

Images superimposed

An initialization vector (IV) is a set of bytes we combine with the key. The IV is not a secret, as it is sent plaintext with the ciphertext. If different IVs were used above with the same key, XORing the ciphertext would result in nothing, because the keystreams are totally different for each message.

However, the way the IV is combined is important too. Simply concatenating the IV and the key can lead to weaknesses due to the way the key schedule algorithm works. Something more secure would be a cryptographic hash of the key and the IV. The reason WEP is broken is because in its design the IV wasn't used properly.

Another weakness is that the initial bytes of the keystream have low entropy. That is, some bits tend to be 0's or 1's consistently, which can leak information to an adversary. This can be countered by tossing the first few bytes of the keystream. Often the first 768 bytes are dropped, but a conservative amount would be 3072 bytes. Another way to deal with this is running the key schedule algorithm 10 or 20 times (not reinitializing the S array between them of course) rather than just once, which is the way CipherSaber-2 does it.

Yet another weakness is that the keystream becomes distinguishable from random data after about a gigabyte of output. That is, after about a gigabyte, the entropy of the overall stream can become too low and compromise the security of the message. A solution might be to change the IV each gigabyte.

I wrote an implementation of Arcfour in C, which you can get from my Git repostiory with,

git clone git://

It is written as a library that can be used in different applications. Included are a couple programs that make use of it. I strongly suggest writing your own implementation. It is really easy to do, and you will automatically have the algorithm memorized once you do it. The Wikipedia article has some test vectors you can use to test it.

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Chris Wellons