Blowpipe: a Blowfish-encrypted, Authenticated Pipe

Blowpipe is a toy crypto tool that creates a Blowfish-encrypted pipe. It doesn’t open any files and instead encrypts and decrypts from standard input to standard output. This pipe can encrypt individual files or even encrypt a network connection (à la netcat).

Most importantly, since Blowpipe is intended to be used as a pipe (duh), it will never output decrypted plaintext that hasn’t been authenticated. That is, it will detect tampering of the encrypted stream and truncate its output, reporting an error, without producing the manipulated data. Some very similar tools that aren’t considered toys lack this important feature, such as aespipe.


Blowpipe came about because I wanted to study Blowfish, a 64-bit block cipher designed by Bruce Schneier in 1993. It’s played an important role in the history of cryptography and has withstood cryptanalysis for 24 years. Its major weakness is its small block size, leaving it vulnerable to birthday attacks regardless of any other property of the cipher. Even in 1993 the 64-bit block size was a bit on the small side, but Blowfish was intended as a drop-in replacement for the Data Encryption Standard (DES) and the International Data Encryption Algorithm (IDEA), other 64-bit block ciphers.

The main reason I’m calling this program a toy is that, outside of legacy interfaces, it’s simply not appropriate to deploy a 64-bit block cipher in 2017. Blowpipe shouldn’t be used to encrypt more than a few tens of GBs of data at a time. Otherwise I’m fairly confident in both my message construction and my implementation. One detail is a little uncertain, and I’ll discuss it later when describing message format.

A tool that I am confident about is Enchive, though since it’s intended for file encryption, it’s not appropriate for use as a pipe. It doesn’t authenticate until after it has produced most of its output. Enchive does try its best to delete files containing unauthenticated output when authentication fails, but this doesn’t prevent you from consuming this output before it can be deleted, particularly if you pipe the output into another program.


As you might expect, there are two modes of operation: encryption (-E) and decryption (-D). The simplest usage is encrypting and decrypting a file:

$ blowpipe -E < data.gz > data.gz.enc
$ blowpipe -D < data.gz.enc | gunzip > data.txt

In both cases you will be prompted for a passphrase which can be up to 72 bytes in length. The only verification for the key is the first Message Authentication Code (MAC) in the datastream, so Blowpipe cannot tell the difference between damaged ciphertext and an incorrect key.

In a script it would be smart to check Blowpipe’s exit code after decrypting. The output will be truncated should authentication fail somewhere in the middle. Since Blowpipe isn’t aware of files, it can’t clean up for you.

Another use case is securely transmitting files over a network with netcat. In this example I’ll use a pre-shared key file, keyfile. Rather than prompt for a key, Blowpipe will use the raw bytes of a given file. Here’s how I would create a key file:

$ head -c 32 /dev/urandom > keyfile

First the receiver listens on a socket (bind(2)):

$ nc -lp 2000 | blowpipe -D -k keyfile >

Then the sender connects (connect(2)) and pipes Blowpipe through:

$ blowpipe -E -k keyfile < | nc -N hostname 2000

If all went well, Blowpipe will exit with 0 on the receiver side.

Blowpipe doesn’t buffer its output (but see -w). It performs one read(2), encrypts whatever it got, prepends a MAC, and calls write(2) on the result. This means it can comfortably transmit live sensitive data across the network:

$ nc -lp 2000 | blowpipe -D

# dmesg -w | blowpipe -E | nc -N hostname 2000

Kernel messages will appear on the other end as they’re produced by dmesg. Though keep in mind that the size of each line will be known to eavesdroppers. Blowpipe doesn’t pad it with noise or otherwise try to disguise the length. Those lengths may leak useful information.


This whole project started when I wanted to play with Blowfish as a small drop-in library. I wasn’t satisfied with the selection, so I figured it would be a good exercise to write my own. Besides, the specification is both an enjoyable and easy read (and recommended). It justifies the need for a new cipher and explains the various design decisions.

I coded from the specification, including writing a script to generate the subkey initialization tables. Subkeys are initialized to the binary representation of pi (the first ~10,000 decimal digits). After a couple hours of work I hooked up the official test vectors to see how I did, and all the tests passed on the first run. This wasn’t reasonable, so I spent awhile longer figuring out how I screwed up my tests. Turns out I absolutely nailed it on my first shot. It’s a really great sign for Blowfish that it’s so easy to implement correctly.

Blowfish’s key schedule produces five subkeys requiring 4,168 bytes of storage. The key schedule is unusually complex: Subkeys are repeatedly encrypted with themselves as they are being computed. This complexity inspired the bcrypt password hashing scheme, which essentially works by iterating the key schedule many times in a loop, then encrypting a constant 24-byte string. My bcrypt implementation wasn’t nearly as successful on my first attempt, and it took hours of debugging in order to match OpenBSD’s outputs.

The encryption and decryption algorithms are nearly identical, as is typical for, and a feature of, Feistel ciphers. There are no branches (preventing some side-channel attacks), and the only operations are 32-bit XOR and 32-bit addition. This makes it ideal for implementation on 32-bit computers.

One tricky point is that encryption and decryption operate on a pair of 32-bit integers (another giveaway that it’s a Feistel cipher). To put the cipher to practical use, these integers have to be serialized into a byte stream. The specification doesn’t choose a byte order, even for mixing the key into the subkeys. The official test vectors are also 32-bit integers, not byte arrays. An implementer could choose little endian, big endian, or even something else.

However, there’s one place in which this decision is formally made: the official test vectors mix the key into the first subkey in big endian byte order. By luck I happened to choose big endian as well, which is why my tests passed on the first try. OpenBSD’s version of bcrypt also uses big endian for all integer encoding steps, further cementing big endian as the standard way to encode Blowfish integers.

Blowfish library

The Blowpipe repository contains a ready-to-use, public domain Blowfish library written in strictly conforming C99. The interface is just three functions:

void blowfish_init(struct blowfish *, const void *key, int len);
void blowfish_encrypt(struct blowfish *, uint32_t *, uint32_t *);
void blowfish_decrypt(struct blowfish *, uint32_t *, uint32_t *);

Technically the key can be up to 72 bytes long, but the last 16 bytes have an incomplete effect on the subkeys, so only the first 56 bytes should matter. Since bcrypt runs the key schedule multiple times, all 72 bytes have full effect.

The library also includes a bcrypt implementation, though it will only produce the raw password hash, not the base-64 encoded form. The main reason for including bcrypt is to support Blowpipe.

Message format

The main goal of Blowpipe was to build a robust, authenticated encryption tool using only Blowfish as a cryptographic primitive.

  1. It uses bcrypt with a moderately-high cost as a key derivation function (KDF). Not terrible, but this is not a memory hard KDF, which is important for protecting against cheap hardware brute force attacks.

  2. Encryption is Blowfish in “counter” CTR mode. A 64-bit counter is incremented and encrypted, producing a keystream. The plaintext is XORed with this keystream like a stream cipher. This allows the last block to be truncated when output and eliminates some padding issues. Since CRT mode is trivially malleable, the MAC becomes even more important. In CTR mode, blowfish_decrypt() is never called. In fact, Blowpipe never uses it.

  3. The authentication scheme is Blowfish-CBC-MAC with a unique key and encrypt-then-authenticate (something I harmlessly got wrong with Enchive). It essentially encrypts the ciphertext again with a different key, but in Cipher Block Chaining mode (CBC), but it only saves the final block. The final block is prepended to the ciphertext as the MAC. On decryption the same block is computed again to ensure that it matches. Only someone who knows the MAC key can compute it.

Of all three Blowfish uses, I’m least confident about authentication. CBC-MAC is tricky to get right, though I am following the rules: fixed length messages using a different key than encryption.

Wait a minute. Blowpipe is pipe-oriented and can output data without buffering the entire pipe. How can there be fixed-length messages?

The pipe datastream is broken into 64kB chunks. Each chunk is authenticated with its own MAC. Both the MAC and chunk length are written in the chunk header, and the length is authenticated by the MAC. Furthermore, just like the keystream, the MAC is continued from previous chunk, preventing chunks from being reordered. Blowpipe can output the content of a chunk and discard it once it’s been authenticated. If any chunk fails to authenticate, it aborts.

This also leads to another useful trick: The pipe is terminated with a zero length chunk, preventing an attacker from appending to the datastream. Everything after the zero-length chunk is discarded. Since the length is authenticated by the MAC, the attacker also cannot truncate the pipe since that would require knowledge of the MAC key.

The pipe itself has a 17 byte header: a 16 byte random bcrypt salt and 1 byte for the bcrypt cost. The salt is like an initialization vector (IV) that allows keys to be safely reused in different Blowpipe instances. The cost byte is the only distinguishing byte in the stream. Since even the chunk lengths are encrypted, everything else in the datastream should be indistinguishable from random data.


Blowpipe runs on POSIX systems and Windows (Mingw-w64 and MSVC). I initially wrote it for POSIX (on Linux) of course, but I took an unusual approach when it came time to port it to Windows. Normally I’d invent a generic OS interface that makes the appropriate host system calls. This time I kept the POSIX interface (read(2), write(2), open(2), etc.) and implemented the tiny subset of POSIX that I needed in terms of Win32. That implementation can be found under w32-compat/. I even dropped in a copy of my own getopt().

One really cool feature of this technique is that, on Windows, Blowpipe will still “open” /dev/urandom. It’s intercepted by my own open(2), which in response to that filename actually calls CryptAcquireContext() and pretends like it’s a file. It’s all hidden behind the file descriptor. That’s the unix way.

I’m considering giving Enchive the same treatment since it would simply and reduce much of the interface code. In fact, this project has taught me a number of ways that Enchive could be improved. That’s the value of writing “toys” such as Blowpipe.

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Chris Wellons (PGP)
~skeeto/ (view)