Dynamic Assurance (2 of 3)

Like any stream cipher, RC4 needs to generate a keystream and bitwise XOR it with plaintext to create ciphertext. That's how encryption works.

  • Keystream - data that is reproducible but indistinguishable from random.

  • Plaintext - unencrypted data.

  • Ciphertext - encrypted data.

Keystream generation is implemented using a buffer to represent cipher state. Mechanically, RC4's cipher state is a 256 byte array, named s, and indexed with two variables, i and j. Our first step is creating a structure to store this ever-changing state and the current values of its indexes. We'll want to add the following at the top of crypto_tool/rc4/src/lib.rs:

#![cfg_attr(not(test), no_std)]

pub struct Rc4 {
    s: [u8; 256],
    i: u8,
    j: u8,
  • The first 2 lines are attributes: they communicate with the compiler to configure our project.

  • #![cfg_attr(not(test), no_std)] is a conditional attribute. It applies to the whole crate and informs the compiler that, unless doing a test build, our library makes no assumptions about the system it's going to run on.

    • no_std roughly translates to "don't depend on a standard library or runtime support being available". Although this restricts us to a set of core Rust features, it makes our code portable for embedded use cases: firmware, bootloaders, kernels, etc. We'll discuss #![no_std] more thoroughly in Chapter 4.
  • #![forbid(unsafe_code)] is an unconditional attribute. It again applies to the entire crate, telling the compiler to ensure the library has no unsafe code blocks. This allows our code to maximize Rust's memory safety guarantees, even if we refactor it or add new features later.

    • We'll discuss unsafe throughout the book, but won't use this keyword in our main project.
  • #[derive(Debug)] is a derive macro for something called a trait (definition of shared behavior, explained in Chapter 3). Macros generate additional code. Writing macros is an advanced topic, but you can leverage existing macros even as a beginner1.

    • Notice how #[derive(Debug)] sits atop the Rc4 structure? It only applies to this structure, telling the compiler how to pretty print its contents to a console2. Using this macro makes our stream cipher convenient to visually debug in test builds.
  • The Rc4 structure is the most important part of the above code. Though not an object in the traditional sense3, our structure encapsulates private data and we're going to define methods that operate on that data next. Rc4's three fields are:

    • s: cipher state, an array of 256 bytes (unsigned, 8-bit integers - hence u8).

    • i: "incrementing" index for key stream generation.

    • j: "jumping" index for key stream generation.

We're now ready to implement the two halves of RC4's logic: KSA and PRGA.

WARNING! RC4 is insecure.

Real-world projects need to select a well-audited implementation of a modern, well-tested cipher. Remember, we've chosen RC4 for this chapter's example because it's relatively easy to implement. RC4 isn't suitable for professional projects.

1. The Key-Scheduling Algorithm (KSA)

The goal of RC4's KSA step is initializing the cipher state array by computing a permutation influenced by a variable-length (40 to 2,048 bit) secret key.

It's best to put this logic in Rc4's constructor. So that a library user doesn't have to remember to call a special initialization function before encrypting data. The cipher instance returned by the constructor will already be initialized.

Function-related Terminology

This section will use two technical terms. The concepts aren't unique to Rust, but the terms have specific meaning in Rust programs:4

  • Associated function: A function that is defined on a structure, but does not take &self (reference to instance of structure) as its first parameter. It doesn't read or write structure fields.

  • Method: A function defined on a structure that does take &self or &mut self as the first parameter. It reads and/or writes fields on a specific instance of a structure.

By convention, Rust constructors are associated functions (no self parameter) named new that return an instance of the structure being constructed.

Let's add one that performs KSA, right below the Rc4 structure definition. Notice we define new inside an impl Rc4 block, tying it to the structure of the same name:

impl Rc4 {
    /// Init a new Rc4 stream cipher instance
    pub fn new(key: &[u8]) -> Self {
        // Verify valid key length (40 to 2048 bits)
        assert!(5 <= key.len() && key.len() <= 256);

        // Zero-init our struct
        let mut rc4 = Rc4 {
            s: [0; 256],
            i: 0,
            j: 0,

        // Cipher state identity permutation
        for (i, b) in rc4.s.iter_mut().enumerate() {
            // s[i] = i
            *b = i as u8;

        // Process for 256 iterations, get starting cipher state permutation
        let mut j: u8 = 0;
        for i in 0..256 {
            // j = (j + s[i] + key[i % key_len]) % 256
            j = j.wrapping_add(rc4.s[i]).wrapping_add(key[i % key.len()]);

            // Swap values of s[i] and s[j]
            rc4.s.swap(i, j as usize);

        // Return our initialized Rc4

The above code might make you a little uncomfortable. That's OK. Learning any new language involves squinting at code you don't fully understand. And that's usually not a great feeling.

To make matters worse, cryptographic code is just its own weird thing - regardless of the implementation language. Let's double down and try to make sense of it:

  • new takes a single parameter, key, which is a reference to a slice of bytes. This signature makes passing in key data efficient5 and flexible6. We'll cover slices in Chapter 3.

  • The assert! statement, another macro, ensures the user of our API provides a key of valid length. If not, our program will terminate at this line. That's an aggressive way to handle errors. We'll talk about other options later.

  • let mut rc4 = ... creates a mutable instance of our Rc4 structure with all fields zero initialized. Variables are immutable by default in Rust. But we'll be setting up cipher state (the s array), we need the mut keyword here.

  • The next bit of code, a for loop identity permutation7, is just a fancy way to set s[0] = 0, s[1] = 1, s[2] = 2, ..., s[255] = 255. It uses iterators. We'll implement our own iterators in Chapter 10, so let's not dwell on the syntax right now.

  • The subsequent for loop further permutes the cipher state s. Three details worth pointing out:

    • We have to use the wrapping_add function instead of the addition operator (+) in cryptographic code because we want integer overflow (explanation coming in Chapter 3) to emulate modular arithmetic8.

    • Have you ever swapped two variables using a third (probably named temp)? If your answer is "good God, a hundred times" then you'll appreciate how swap is a built-in method for arrays in Rust.

    • Indexes are always register-width unsigned integers in Rust. So, in the call to swap, we promote j (a lowly u8) to a usize with the as keyword. Think of this minor detail as a "safe cast"9.

  • The final line of the new function returns an initialized instance of an Rc4 structure. Rust functions don't need the return keyword unless you want to return early (e.g. halfway through the function body) for some reason.

    • The return type of the function (specified right after ->) is Self. Because new is inside an impl Rc4 block, this is shorthand for returning an instance of an Rc4 structure.

Visualizing a round of permutation might make the concept more tangible. Every loop iteration, i and j change (with j being influenced by the key) and rc4.s.swap(i, j as usize) just switches two values within s:

Visualization of swapping s[i] and s[j]

2. Pseudo-Random Generation Algorithm (PRGA)

The new function creates and initializes an instance of the Rc4 cipher. We need another function that uses an Rc4 instance to generate a keystream. Once we have a keystream, we can encrypt data with it.

prga_next is our keystream generation function, it outputs a single keystream byte each time it's called. We'll add it right after the new function, inside the same impl Rc4 block.

Unlike the new associated function, prga_next is a method. Methods always take a reference to self, an instance of the structure they're being called on, as their first parameter.

impl Rc4 {
    // ..new() definition omitted..

    /// Output the next byte of the keystream
    pub fn prga_next(&mut self) -> u8 {
        // i = (i + 1) mod 256
        self.i = self.i.wrapping_add(1);

        // j = (j + s[i]) mod 256
        self.j = self.j.wrapping_add(self.s[self.i as usize]);

        // Swap values of s[i] and s[j]
        self.s.swap(self.i as usize, self.j as usize);

        // k = s[(s[i] + s[j]) mod 256]
        let k = self.s[(self.s[self.i as usize].wrapping_add(self.s[self.j as usize])) as usize];

        // output K

This function performs similar operations to the new function, so we don't need to go over it in detail. We're concerned with getting a taste of Rust, not with the specific operations RC4's design dictates. There is, however, one detail worth pointing out:

  • prga_next's sole parameter is &mut self, a mutable reference to the Rc4 structure on which it will be called. We need the mut keyword here again because this function makes changes to an Rc4 struct - it writes indexes i and j, and swaps bytes inside the cipher state buffer s.

As an aside - we can visualize that second-to-last line, let k = ..., like so:10

Visualization of k = s[(s[i] + s[j]) mod 256]

3. {En,De}cryption

The Classic Flexible Interface

We implement encryption by XORing each prga_next output byte (keystream) with each byte of the plaintext. Since XOR is reversible, the same function also works for decryption!

impl Rc4 {
    // ..new() definition omitted..

    /// Stateful, in-place en/decryption (current keystream XORed with data).
    /// Use if plaintext/ciphertext is transmitted in chunks.
    pub fn apply_keystream(&mut self, data: &mut [u8]) {
        for b_ptr in data {
            *b_ptr ^= self.prga_next();

    // ..prga_next() definition omitted..

Implementing encryption within a method maximizes flexibility: if we receive data in [potentially variable length] chunks, a single instance of Rc4 can perform "running" encryption across multiple chunks like so (the below is an API usage example, not part of our Rc4 implementation):

let key = [0x1, 0x2, 0x3, 0x4, 0x5];

let msg_1 = [0x48, 0x65, 0x6c, 0x6c, 0x6f]; // "Hello"
let msg_2 = [0x20, 0x57, 0x6f, 0x72, 0x6c, 0x64, 0x21]; // " World!"

// Encrypt in-place
let mut rc4 = Rc4::new(&key);
rc4.apply_keystream(&mut msg_1);
rc4.apply_keystream(&mut msg_2);

// Decrypt in-place
let mut rc4 = Rc4::new(&key);
rc4.apply_keystream(&mut msg_1);
rc4.apply_keystream(&mut msg_2);

Most real-world stream cipher libraries use an API like this one. But it entails subtle complexity: rc4 is stateful and must be re-constructed prior to decryption with new. Moreover, the order of parameters to apply_keystream matters - decryption would produce the incorrect result if we accidentally called rc4.apply_keystream(&mut msg_2) before rc4.apply_keystream(&mut msg_1) in the above.

Making the Common Case Easier

Implementing encryption within an associated function provides a simpler interface, so long as all the data is in memory at once. Which might be the case reasonably often. Notice it's really just a wrapper that hides state from the caller:

impl Rc4 {
    // ..new() definition omitted..

    // ..apply_keystream() definition omitted..

    /// Stateless, in-place en/decryption (keystream XORed with data).
    /// Use if entire plaintext/ciphertext is in-memory at once.
    pub fn apply_keystream_static(key: &[u8], data: &mut [u8]) {
        let mut rc4 = Rc4::new(key);

    // ..prga_next() definition omitted..

Now we can en/decrypt with a single method call, no need to worry about the state of an Rc4 instance (API usage example below):

let key = [0x1, 0x2, 0x3, 0x4, 0x5];

let msg = [
    0x48, 0x65, 0x6c, 0x6c, 0x6f, 0x20, 0x57, 0x6f,
    0x72, 0x6c, 0x64, 0x21,
]; // "Hello World!"

// Encrypt in-place
Rc4::apply_keystream_static(&key, &mut msg);

// Decrypt in-place
Rc4::apply_keystream_static(&key, &mut msg);

With our two en/decryption functions done, we've now finished implementation. Time for validation. Cryptography software really needs to be correct, we can't stop here. Let's put this code through its paces!

How can encryption and decryption be the same operation?

In short, because XOR is both reversible and, due to the nature of the keystream, unpredictable:

  • First, cipher_text = plain_text ^ key_stream (encryption).

  • Then, plain_text = cipher_text ^ key_stream (decryption).

  • The key stream can flip any bit in the plaintext as if by 50/50 random chance.

For a more mathematically principled treatment, we recommend the proof on page 32 of Paar and Pelzl's Understanding Cryptography11. While it's a university textbook, the formalisms are lightweight and precise. It's an excellent introduction to the field of cryptography. And the book is supplemented by free video lectures12.


Unlike C macros, Rust macros are hygienic: they won't cause subtle problems by capturing identifiers. This is part of what makes them so easy to use. In fact, println! is a macro. So you already used a macro when running the "Hello world!" program at the end of Chapter 1.


Trait std::fmt::Debug. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


In Rust, shared behavior is defined by trait composition, not by object-oriented inheritance. There's no "class hierarchy", like in C++ or Java. We'll cover traits in Chapter 3.


Technically, per the Rust reference13, "Associated functions are functions associated with a type" and "Associated functions whose first parameter is named self are called methods...". But that's pretty in the weeds. We treat associated functions and methods as distinct in this section for clarity.


Slice references are "fat pointers" (tuple of pointer and element count), they allow us to pass variable-length data without copying it (recall "pass-by-reference", from when we first talked about pointers).


Slices are flexible because different kinds of collections (say, a fixed-size array or dynamically-sized vector) can be "viewed" through a slice. So you'll encounter them often in idiomatic Rust code.


Neutral element and inverses. Wikipedia (Accessed 2022).


Modular arithmetic. Wikipedia (Accessed 2022).


There are best practices related to casting in Rust. Namely using traits From and Into for infallible conversions between types, and TryFrom and TryInto for fallible conversions. We'll discus this topic in detail later.


RC4. Wikipedia (Accessed 2022).


[PERSONAL FAVORITE] Understanding Cryptography. Christof Paar, Jan Pelzl (2009).


Online Cryptography Course. Christof Paar, Jan Pelzl (2009).


The Rust Reference: Associated Items. The Rust Team (2021).