Network Working Group
Request for Comments: 1751
Category: Informational
D. McDonald
December 1994

A Convention for Human-Readable 128-bit Keys

Status of this Memo

This memo provides information for the Internet community. This memo does not specify an Internet standard of any kind. Distribution of the memo is unlimited.


The Internet community has begun to address matters of security. Recent standards, including version 2 of SNMP [GM93], have explicit requirements for an authentication mechanism. These require use of a keyed message-digest algorithm, MD5 [Riv92], with a key size of 128- bits. A 128-bit key, while sufficiently strong, is hard for most people to read, remember, and type in. This memo proposes a convention for use with Internet applications & protocols using 128- bit cryptographic keys.

A Solution Already Exists

The S/Key(tm) one-time password system [Hal94] uses MD4 (and now MD5, as well) to compute one-time passwords. It takes the 128-bit result of MD4 and collapses it to a 64-bit result. Despite the size reduction, 64-bit one-time passwords are still difficult for ordinary people to remember and enter. The authors of S/Key devised a system to make the 64-bit one-time password easy for people to enter.

Their idea was to transform the password into a string of small English words. English words are significantly easier for people to both remember and type. The authors of S/Key started with a dictionary of 2048 English words, ranging in length from one to four characters. The space covered by a 64-bit key (2^64) could be covered by six words from this dictionary (2^66) with room remaining for parity. For example, an S/Key one-time password of hex value:

EB33 F77E E73D 4053

would become the following six English words:


Because of the need for interoperability, it is undesirable to have different dictionaries for different languages. Also, the current dictionary only uses characters from the invariant portion of ISO- 646. Finally, there is an installed base of users and applications with this dictionary.

The Proposal

The code (see Appendix A) which S/Key uses to convert 64-bit numbers to six English words contains two primitives which perform conversions either way. The primitive btoe(char *engout,char *c) takes a 64-bit quantity referenced by c and places English words in the string referenced by engout. The primitive etob(char *out,char *e) performs the opposite with an input string of English words referenced by e, and by placing the 64-bit result into the buffer referenced by out.

The aforementioned primitives can be applied to both halves of a 128-bit key, or both halves of a string of twelve English words. Two new primitives (see Appendix B), key2eng(char *engout,char *key) and eng2key(char *keyout,char *eng) serve as wrappers which call the S/Key primitives twice, once for each half of the 128-bit key or string of twelve words.

For example, the 128-bit key of:

CCAC 2AED 5910 56BE 4F90 FD44 1C53 4766

   would become


Likewise, a user should be able to type in


as a key, and the machine should make the translation to:

EFF8 1F9B FBC6 5350 920C DD74 16DE 8009

If this proposal is to work, it is critical that the dictionary of English words does not change with different implementations. A freely redistributable reference implementation is given in Appendices A and B.

Security Considerations

This document recommends a method of representing 128-bit keys using strings of English words. Since the strings of English words are easy to remember, people may potentially construct easy-to-guess strings of English words. With easy-to-guess strings comes the possibility of a sentential equivalent of a dictionary attack. In order to maximize the strength of any authentication mechanism that uses 128-bit keys, the keys must be sufficiently obscure. In particular, people should avoid the temptation to devise sentences.


S/Key is a registered trademark of Bell Communications Research.

Thanks to Randall Atkinson for the bulk of the security considerations section, and for general advice. Thanks to Phil Karn and Neil Haller for producing the S/Key one-time password system, which inspired this document.


   [GM93]  Galvin, J. and K. McCloghrie, "Security Protocols for version
   2 of the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMPv2)", RFC 1446,
   Trusted Information Systems, Hughes LAN Systems, April 1993.
   [Hal94]  Haller, N., "The S/Key(tm) One-Time Password System",
   Proceedings of the Symposium on Network & Distributed Systems
   Security, Internet Society, San Diego, February 1994.
   [Riv92]  Rivest, R., "The MD5 Message-Digest Algorithm", RFC 1321,
   MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and RSA Data Security, Inc.,
   April 1992.

Author's Address

Daniel L. McDonald
United States Naval Research Laboratory
Code 5544
4555 Overlook Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20375

   Phone:  (202) 404-7122

Appendix A - Source for S/Key 8-bytes to/from Words Routines (put.c)

/* This code originally appeared in the source for S/Key(TM),

 * available in the directory
 * It has been modified only to remove explicit S/Key(TM) references.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <assert.h>
#include <ctype.h>

#ifdef __STDC__
#define __ARGS(x) x
#define __ARGS(x) ()

static unsigned long extract __ARGS((char *s,int start,int length));
static void standard __ARGS((char *word));
static void insert __ARGS((char *s, int x, int start, int length));
static int wsrch __ARGS((char *w,int low,int high));

/* Dictionary for integer-word translations */
char Wp[2048][4] = { "A", "ABE", "ACE", "ACT", "AD", "ADA", "ADD",
"AGO", "AID", "AIM", "AIR", "ALL", "ALP", "AM", "AMY", "AN", "ANA",
"AND", "ANN", "ANT", "ANY", "APE", "APS", "APT", "ARC", "ARE", "ARK",
"ARM", "ART", "AS", "ASH", "ASK", "AT", "ATE", "AUG", "AUK", "AVE",
"AWE", "AWK", "AWL", "AWN", "AX", "AYE", "BAD", "BAG", "BAH", "BAM",
"BAN", "BAR", "BAT", "BAY", "BE", "BED", "BEE", "BEG", "BEN", "BET",
"BEY", "BIB", "BID", "BIG", "BIN", "BIT", "BOB", "BOG", "BON", "BOO",
"BOP", "BOW", "BOY", "BUB", "BUD", "BUG", "BUM", "BUN", "BUS", "BUT",
"BUY", "BY", "BYE", "CAB", "CAL", "CAM", "CAN", "CAP", "CAR", "CAT",
"CAW", "COD", "COG", "COL", "CON", "COO", "COP", "COT", "COW", "COY",
"CRY", "CUB", "CUE", "CUP", "CUR", "CUT", "DAB", "DAD", "DAM", "DAN",
"DAR", "DAY", "DEE", "DEL", "DEN", "DES", "DEW", "DID", "DIE", "DIG",
"DIN", "DIP", "DO", "DOE", "DOG", "DON", "DOT", "DOW", "DRY", "DUB",
"DUD", "DUE", "DUG", "DUN", "EAR", "EAT", "ED", "EEL", "EGG", "EGO",
"ELI", "ELK", "ELM", "ELY", "EM", "END", "EST", "ETC", "EVA", "EVE",
"EWE", "EYE", "FAD", "FAN", "FAR", "FAT", "FAY", "FED", "FEE", "FEW",
"FIB", "FIG", "FIN", "FIR", "FIT", "FLO", "FLY", "FOE", "FOG", "FOR",
"FRY", "FUM", "FUN", "FUR", "GAB", "GAD", "GAG", "GAL", "GAM", "GAP",
"GAS", "GAY", "GEE", "GEL", "GEM", "GET", "GIG", "GIL", "GIN", "GO",
"GOT", "GUM", "GUN", "GUS", "GUT", "GUY", "GYM", "GYP", "HA", "HAD",
"HAL", "HAM", "HAN", "HAP", "HAS", "HAT", "HAW", "HAY", "HE", "HEM",
"HEN", "HER", "HEW", "HEY", "HI", "HID", "HIM", "HIP", "HIS", "HIT",
"HO", "HOB", "HOC", "HOE", "HOG", "HOP", "HOT", "HOW", "HUB", "HUE",
"HUG", "HUH", "HUM", "HUT", "I", "ICY", "IDA", "IF", "IKE", "ILL",
"INK", "INN", "IO", "ION", "IQ", "IRA", "IRE", "IRK", "IS", "IT", "ITS",
"IVY", "JAB", "JAG", "JAM", "JAN", "JAR", "JAW", "JAY", "JET", "JIG",
"JIM", "JO", "JOB", "JOE", "JOG", "JOT", "JOY", "JUG", "JUT", "KAY",
"KEG", "KEN", "KEY", "KID", "KIM", "KIN", "KIT", "LA", "LAB", "LAC",
"LAD", "LAG", "LAM", "LAP", "LAW", "LAY", "LEA", "LED", "LEE", "LEG",
"LEN", "LEO", "LET", "LEW", "LID", "LIE", "LIN", "LIP", "LIT", "LO",
"LOB", "LOG", "LOP", "LOS", "LOT", "LOU", "LOW", "LOY", "LUG", "LYE",
"MA", "MAC", "MAD", "MAE", "MAN", "MAO", "MAP", "MAT", "MAW", "MAY",
"ME", "MEG", "MEL", "MEN", "MET", "MEW", "MID", "MIN", "MIT", "MOB",
"MOD", "MOE", "MOO", "MOP", "MOS", "MOT", "MOW", "MUD", "MUG", "MUM",
"MY", "NAB", "NAG", "NAN", "NAP", "NAT", "NAY", "NE", "NED", "NEE",
"NET", "NEW", "NIB", "NIL", "NIP", "NIT", "NO", "NOB", "NOD", "NON",
"NOR", "NOT", "NOV", "NOW", "NU", "NUN", "NUT", "O", "OAF", "OAK",
"OAR", "OAT", "ODD", "ODE", "OF", "OFF", "OFT", "OH", "OIL", "OK",
"OLD", "ON", "ONE", "OR", "ORB", "ORE", "ORR", "OS", "OTT", "OUR",
"OUT", "OVA", "OW", "OWE", "OWL", "OWN", "OX", "PA", "PAD", "PAL",
"PAM", "PAN", "PAP", "PAR", "PAT", "PAW", "PAY", "PEA", "PEG", "PEN",
"PEP", "PER", "PET", "PEW", "PHI", "PI", "PIE", "PIN", "PIT", "PLY",
"PO", "POD", "POE", "POP", "POT", "POW", "PRO", "PRY", "PUB", "PUG",
"PUN", "PUP", "PUT", "QUO", "RAG", "RAM", "RAN", "RAP", "RAT", "RAW",
"RAY", "REB", "RED", "REP", "RET", "RIB", "RID", "RIG", "RIM", "RIO",
"RIP", "ROB", "ROD", "ROE", "RON", "ROT", "ROW", "ROY", "RUB", "RUE",
"RUG", "RUM", "RUN", "RYE", "SAC", "SAD", "SAG", "SAL", "SAM", "SAN",
"SAP", "SAT", "SAW", "SAY", "SEA", "SEC", "SEE", "SEN", "SET", "SEW",
"SHE", "SHY", "SIN", "SIP", "SIR", "SIS", "SIT", "SKI", "SKY", "SLY",
"SO", "SOB", "SOD", "SON", "SOP", "SOW", "SOY", "SPA", "SPY", "SUB",
"SUD", "SUE", "SUM", "SUN", "SUP", "TAB", "TAD", "TAG", "TAN", "TAP",
"TAR", "TEA", "TED", "TEE", "TEN", "THE", "THY", "TIC", "TIE", "TIM",
"TIN", "TIP", "TO", "TOE", "TOG", "TOM", "TON", "TOO", "TOP", "TOW",
"TOY", "TRY", "TUB", "TUG", "TUM", "TUN", "TWO", "UN", "UP", "US",
"USE", "VAN", "VAT", "VET", "VIE", "WAD", "WAG", "WAR", "WAS", "WAY",
"WE", "WEB", "WED", "WEE", "WET", "WHO", "WHY", "WIN", "WIT", "WOK",
"WON", "WOO", "WOW", "WRY", "WU", "YAM", "YAP", "YAW", "YE", "YEA",
"YES", "YET", "YOU", "ABED", "ABEL", "ABET", "ABLE", "ABUT", "ACHE",

/* Encode 8 bytes in 'c' as a string of English words.
 * Returns a pointer to a static buffer
char *
char *c, *engout;
        char cp[9];     /* add in room for the parity 2 bits*/
        int p,i ;

        engout[0] = '\0';
        memcpy(cp, c,8);
        /* compute parity */
        for(p = 0,i = 0; i < 64;i += 2)
                p += extract(cp,i,2);

        cp[8] = (char)p << 6;
        strncat(engout,&Wp[extract(cp, 0,11)][0],4);
        strcat(engout," ");
        strcat(engout," ");
        strcat(engout," ");
        strcat(engout," ");
        strcat(engout," ");
#ifdef  notdef
        printf("engout is %s\n\r",engout);

/* convert English to binary
 * returns 1 OK - all good words and parity is OK
 *         0 word not in data base
 *        -1 badly formed in put ie > 4 char word

 *        -2 words OK but parity is wrong
etob(out, e)
char *out;
char *e;
        char *word;
        int i, p, v,l, low,high;
        char b[9];
        char input[36];

if(e == NULL)

                return -1;
        memset(b, 0, sizeof(b));
        memset(out, 0, 8);
                if((word = strtok(i == 0 ? input : NULL," ")) == NULL)
                        return -1;
                l = strlen(word);
                if(l > 4 || l < 1){
                        return -1;
                } else if(l < 4){
                        low = 0;
                        high = 570;
                } else {
                        low = 571;
                        high = 2047;
                if( (v = wsrch(word,low,high)) < 0 )
                        return 0;
        /* now check the parity of what we got */
        for(p = 0, i = 0; i < 64; i +=2)
                p += extract(b, i, 2);
        if( (p & 3) != extract(b, 64,2) )
                return -2;

return 1;


/* Display 8 bytes as a series of 16-bit hex digits */
char *
char *out;
char *s;
        sprintf(out,"%02X%02X %02X%02X %02X%02X %02X%02X",
                s[0] & 0xff,s[1] & 0xff,s[2] & 0xff,
                s[3] & 0xff,s[4] & 0xff,s[5] & 0xff,
                s[6] & 0xff,s[7] & 0xff);
        return out;
#ifdef  notdef
/* Encode 8 bytes in 'cp' as stream of ascii letters.
 * Provided as a possible alternative to btoe()
char *
char *cp;
        int i;
        static char out[31];

        /* code out put by characters 6 bits each added to 0x21 (!)*/
        for(i=0;i <= 10;i++){
                /* last one is only 4 bits not 6*/
                out[i] = '!'+ extract(cp,6*i,i >= 10 ? 4:6);
        out[i] = '\0';

/* Internal subroutines for word encoding/decoding */

/* Dictionary binary search */
static int
char *w;
int low, high;
        int i,j;


                i = (low + high)/2;
                if((j = strncmp(w,Wp[i],4)) == 0)
                        return i;       /* Found it */
                if(high == low+1){

                        /* Avoid effects of integer truncation in /2 */
                        if(strncmp(w,Wp[high],4) == 0)
                                return high;
                                return -1;
                if(low >= high)
                        return -1;
                   /* I don't *think* this can happen...*/
                if(j < 0)
                        high = i;  /* Search lower half */
                        low = i;   /* Search upper half */
static void
insert(s, x, start, length)
char *s;
int x;
int  start, length;
        unsigned char cl;
        unsigned char cc;
        unsigned char cr;
        unsigned long y;
        int shift;

        assert(length <= 11);
        assert(start >= 0);
        assert(length >= 0);
        assert(start +length <= 66);

        shift = ((8  -(( start + length) % 8))%8);
        y = (long) x << shift;
        cl = (y >> 16) & 0xff;
        cc = (y >> 8) & 0xff;
        cr = y & 0xff;
        if(shift + length > 16){
                s[start /8] |= cl;
                s[start/8 +1] |= cc;
                s[start/8 +2] |= cr;
        } else if(shift +length > 8){
                s[start/8] |= cc;
                s[start/8 + 1] |= cr;
        } else {
                s[start/8] |= cr;
static void
register char *word;
                        *word = toupper(*word);
                if(*word == '1')
                        *word = 'L';
                if(*word == '0')
                        *word = 'O';
                if(*word == '5')
                        *word = 'S';

/* Extract 'length' bits from the char array 's'
   starting with bit 'start' */
static unsigned long
extract(s, start, length)
char *s;
int start, length;
        unsigned char cl;
        unsigned char cc;
        unsigned char cr;
        unsigned long x;

        assert(length <= 11);
        assert(start >= 0);
        assert(length >= 0);
        assert(start +length <= 66);

        cl = s[start/8];
        cc = s[start/8 +1];
        cr = s[start/8 +2];
        x = ((long)(cl<<8 | cc) <<8  | cr) ;
        x = x >> (24 - (length + (start %8)));
        x =( x & (0xffff >> (16-length) )   );

Appendix B - Source for 128-bit key to/from English words (convert.c)

/* convert.c -- Wrapper to S/Key binary-to-English routines.

Daniel L. McDonald -- U. S. Naval Research Laboratory. */

#include <string.h>

/* eng2key() assumes words must be separated by spaces only.

   eng2key() returns

   1 if succeeded
   0 if word not in dictionary
   -1 if badly formed string
   -2 if words are okay but parity is wrong.
   (see etob() in S/Key)

int eng2key(keyout,eng)
char *keyout,*eng;
  int rc=0,state=1;
  char *eng2;

  /* Find pointer to word 7. */

  for (eng2 = eng; rc<7 && (*(++eng2) != '\0'); )
    if (*eng2 != ' ')
        rc += state;
        state = 0;
    else state=1;

  if ( (rc = etob(keyout,eng)) != 1)
    return rc;

  rc = etob(keyout+8,eng2);

return rc;


/* key2eng() assumes string referenced by
   engout has at least 60 characters
   (4*12 + 11 spaces + '\0') of space.

key2eng() returns pointer to engout.


char *key2eng(engout,key)
char *engout,*key;
  strcat(engout," ");
  return engout;