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I describe a method for making Lamport signatures take up less space. I haven't seen anyone use hash chains this way before, so I think it's pretty cool.

What's this all about?

Digital cryptography! This is a subject I've been interested in since taking a class with Prof. Fred Schneider back in college. Articles pop up on Hacker News fairly often that pique my interest and this technique is the result of one of them.

Specifically, this is about Lamport signatures. There are many signature algorithms (ECDSA and RSA are the most commonly used) but Lamport signatures are unique because they are formed using a hash function. Many cryptographers believe that this makes them resistant to attacks made possible by quantum computers.

How does a Lamport Signature work?

Here's the long version. This is the short copy without all the parameterization:

  1. Come up with 2 sets (set A and set B) each containing 256 random 256-bit numbers. Keep these secret! They're your private key.
  2. Take the SHA-256 hash of each of your secret numbers. These 512 hashes are your public key.
  3. Get the SHA-256 hash of whatever document you want to sign
  4. For each bit i of the hash from 0..256: If the bit is a 0, publish the ith number from secret set A. If it is a 1, publish the ith number from secret set B. Destroy all unused numbers.
  5. You now have a signature (the 256 random numbers from step 4 corresponding to the bits of the hash from step 3) and a public key (the 512 hashes from step 2 that define if the value of a bit is 0 or 1 for each bit of the signature).

Because hashes are one-way functions, it is computationally hard to forge the secret, random numbers you created in step 1 that would allow an attacker to change your signature. In other words, it takes an impractically huge amount of processing power for an adversary to produce verifiable proof that you signed something other than what you actually signed.

There are two snags with using Lamport signatures in practice:

  1. This is a one-time signature. You can't sign anything else with the same public key. Doing so reveals more of your secret numbers and would allow an attacker to forge your signature for other documents. Fortunately, this is easily solved with a hash tree that merges many public keys down to a single "root". This is called the Merkle signature scheme.
  2. The signatures are enormous compared to ECDSA or RSA. Signing an N-bit hash requires N hashes of N bits each. That's 8 kib for signing a 256-bit hash or 32 kib for a 512-bit hash, which is around 1000x the size of a comparable ECSDA signature.

How to Shorten Lamport Signatures

The Wikipedia article outlines ways to shorten the private key using a cryptographically secure pseudorandom number generator and compress the public key with a hash list. No solution for shortening the public signature itself is published. That's what I hope to contribute with this article!

The Other End of the Spectrum: A Hash Ladder

First, I present an toy demonstration of the algorithm. It is impractical to implement for a number of reasons, but it shows the functionality. After we go through this, I'll modify it to make it usable in practice.

Assume you have a 3-bit signature of a document, H_3bit(document) = 6. Pick two random 5-bit values, 12 and 29, as your private key. Hash each value 2^signed_hash_bits + 2 = 2^3 + 2 = 10 times with a perfect random 5-bit oracle called H_5bit. Each possible value of your 3-bit hash has a corresponding index in these chains of 5-bit hashes:

hash ix:  [0]    [1]    [2]    [3]    [4]    [5]    [6]    [7]
A: 12 -->  5 --> 24 -->  9 -->  1 --> 15 --> 10 -->  8 --> 11 --> 27
B: 23 <-- 19 <-- 20 <--  4 <-- 13 <-- 17 <--  3 <-- 14 <-- 28 <-- 29

A starts on the left and repeated hashes are listed to the right. B starts on the right and repeated hashes are listed to the left. This forms the "ladder" metaphor, with pairs of hashes making the "rungs". The hash is 5 bits to accommodate at least 20 unique non-colliding hashes. In this example, I made up a perfect random oracle hash function with no collisions. In practice, the hash values are incredibly unlikely to collide because their range is 256+ bits rather than 5.

The values at the end of each chain (A=27, B=23) are your public key.

To sign your document with hash 6, find the pair of values at that index: [6] = (A=8, B=14). By publishing these values, anyone with the public key (A=27, B=23) can verify that the pair (A=8, B=14) corresponds to the value 6:

  • Take the A part of the signature pair, 8. Hash it until it equals 27, the A part of the public key. This takes 2 hashes.
  • Take the B part of the signature pair, 14. Hash it until it equals 23, the B part of the public key. This takes 7 hashes.
  • The length of each hash chain when producing the public key is 8. This is public knowledge as an algorithmic constant.
  • 8-2 = 6, which is the claimed hash. 7-1 = 6, which is also the claimed hash. These values equal each other, and are thus the value that was signed by the owner of the public key (A=27, B=23)

An adversary cannot create a valid signature for another value without inverting one of the hashes. For example, to change the pair to sign the value 7, the adversary must be able to solve H_5bit(x) = 14 for x in order to produce the pair (11, 28). Similarly, to change the pair and sign the value 5, the adversary must be able to invert H_5bit(x) = 8 and produce the pair (10, 3). I call this construct a hash ladder because every pair of hash values in the two rows locks each other in place and defines a distinct location on the number line.

Now, we can't actually use this in practice without some modification. Real hashes are at least 256 bits. Creating a signature in this way for a 256-bit value would require a 257-bit hash function to be executed 2*2^256+2 times just to make the public signature. Not only would one signature take longer to compute than the age of the universe, it isn't secure without a hash function that is a perfect perfect random oracle. Any machine that could actually compute this function would be able to invert hashes by brute force anyway.

To use shorten Lamport signatures with a hash ladder in implementation, we need to chop up the hash to be signed into chunks with not very many bits (8-16) and create a ladder for each. With between 2^8 and 2^16 positions on the ladder, the ladder is short enough to be both computable and to have a very low probability of having hash collisions anywhere in the ladder itself.

The Implementable Algorithm

While this can be parameterized to use different ladder chunks and different hash sizes, I present this actual algorithm using 8-bit chunks and 256-bit hashes.


  1. Take the SHA-256 hash of the document you want to sign
  2. Split the 256-bit hash of your document into 32 8-bit chunks
  3. For each chunk, generate a pair of secret random 256-bit numbers. These 64 numbers are your private key.
  4. Hash each of these numbers 258 times. This final set of 32 pairs of 2 hashes each are your public key. (Note: Use a hash chain and this public key becomes just 256 bits)
  5. To create your signature, examine each chunk again. Let the value of this chunk be n with the range [0, 255]. There are 2 256-bit numbers of the private key associated with that chunk. Let a equal the first of these numbers hashed n+1 times. Let b equal the second of these numbers hashed 256-n times. Publish the result (a,b). This pair is your signature for this 8-bit chunk.
  6. Collect up the 32 signatures from each chunk, and you have a 32*2*(256/8) = 2kb signature! This is 4x smaller than the usual Lamport signature.


  1. Take the SHA-256 hash of the document you want to verify
  2. Split the 256-bit hash of the document into 32 8-bit chunks
  3. For each chunk, let the chunk's value from the hash be V, the signature pair of numbers be (a, b) and the corresponding public key pair be (Pa, Pb)
  4. Hash a and count the iterations until it equals Pa or it has been hashed 256 times. If it was hashed 256 times without reaching Pa, the signature is invalid. Save the number of iterations it took to reach Pa from a as i_a.
  5. Repeat step (4) for b, saving the number of iterations to reach Pb from b as i_b.
  6. If 256-i_a != i_b-1 or 256-i_a != V, this signature is invalid.
  7. If there are more chunks, check the next chunk starting with step (3)
  8. The signature is valid if all chunks are signed correctly.


We trade off storage size for computation. Rather than having to compute 256 hashes to verify a 256-bit signature, we now must compute at least 256/8 * 256 = 8192 hashes. However, given that hash functions are intended to be fast this is likely to be a good tradeoff for cachable chunk sizes.

Specifically, if n is the bits of the hash function and k is the bit size of each chunk:

  • (n/8)*2*(n/k) bytes is the size of the public key
  • n/k * 2^k is the number of hashes that must be computed to verify the key
Hash Bits Chunk Bits Public Key Size Relative Size Hashes to Verify Time to Verify @ 100 kHps
256 Lamport 4096 bytes 100 % 256 2 milliseconds
256 8 2048 bytes 50 % 8192 8 milliseconds
256 12 ~1400 bytes ~30 % ~90000 ~ 1 second
256 16 2048 bytes 25 % 1048576 ~ 10 seconds
512 Lamport 32768 bytes 100 % 512 4 milliseconds
256 8 8192 bytes 25 % 16348 160 milliseconds
256 12 ~5500 bytes ~17 % ~176128 ~ 1.8 seconds
256 16 4096 bytes 13 % 1048576 ~ 21 seconds

100 kHps (100,000 hashes per second) was chosen from this list as most CPUs are able to do SHA-256 at at least the megahash-per-second level.

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starius commented Aug 7, 2019

In there are interesting conclusions:

In this paper we show that weaker assumptions are sufficient for the security of W-OTS. We show that W-OTS is existentially unforgeable under adaptive chosen message attacks [11] when instantiated with a family of pseudorandom functions (PRF). Since the PRF property is not affected by birthday attacks, hash functions with shorter output length can be used which in turn reduces the signature size. This result is especially meaningful because the main issue with hash-based signatures is the signature size.

We use the output of the function f_k_ as key for the next iteration. The function is always evaluated on the same input x. This is in contrast to the original construction, where the output of the function is used as input for the next iteration and the key remains fixed.

So chaining can be done with 128 bits instead of 256 reducing total signature size two times (1kb -> 0.5 kb). The final zipping function still needs to be collision resistant (256 bit).

Can AES be used for chaining?

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starius commented Aug 7, 2019

I think relaxing the constraint of a perfect signature and instead looking for a probabilistic check like @anlhord suggested is really promising. If I were to continue my research, this is the direction I'd pursue.

@karlgluck @anlhord Can you elaborate on the approach with sorting, please?
I can not understand this part: "Then you can do probabilistic checks. Select two random bytes from message hash, run the scheme 256 times, then check if final values are ordered."

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mohanson commented Jan 13, 2023

There may be a bug with step 6 of the verification process:

If 256-i_a != i_b-1 or 256-i_a != V, this signature is invalid.

It should be modified to

If 258-i_a != i_b-1 or 257-i_a != V, this signature is invalid.


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