Const-time Modular Inversion Using CRT

Modular inversion is an important component in many cryptographic computations, notably in number-theoretic public key cryptosystems like RSA and ECDSA. In such uses, we must both perform the computation as quickly as possible and also in const-time, that is without any software-observable side channels which leak information about the inputs or output. Otherwise it is possible to attack computations such as RSA key generation or ECDSA signature generation, and recover the secret key.

This is a bad thing.

There are a few good "general purpose" modular inversion algorithms which work for any modulus, such as the extended Euclidean algorithm, the binary extended gcd algorithm, and Montgomery inversion. However these algorithms are relatively difficult to implement in constant time, and even with only incomplete side channel countermeasures in place commonly run 2-10 times slower than a naive implementation. For example Bos reports ( a const-time Montgomery inversion that is about 8 times slower than an unprotected implementation.

There are also inversion algorithms which only work for moduli of a certain form. The most famous and widely used is to rely on Fermat's little theorem, which tells us for any prime \(p\) and any integer \(0 < a < p\) that \(a^{p-1} \equiv 1 \bmod p\). From this we can easily see that \(a^{p-2} \equiv a^{-1} \bmod p\), so given a (side channel silent) modular exponentiation algorithm - which we need anyway for a variety of other reasons - it is possible to compute inversions modulo a prime. This covers almost all practical cryptographic modular inversions, including computing \(k^{-1} \bmod n\) during ECDSA signatures and \(q^{-1} \bmod p\) during RSA key generation.

Another series of algorithms works for inversion modulo \(p^k\) for prime \(p\) and any positive integer \(k\). A paper by Çetin Koç ( gives an overview of several previously published algorithms for inversion modulo \(2^k\) along with a general algorithm for inversion modulo \(p^k\). The special case of Koç's algorithm for \(p = 2\) is exceptionally simple, producing one bit of the output with every loop iteration:

b = 1
for i in 0..k
  Xi = b % 2
  b = (b - a*Xi) / 2
return (Xk,...,X1,X0)

This algorithm is easily implemented in constant-time code.

Finally there are algorithms which compute inversions modulo any odd integer. The two I am aware of are by Bernstein and Yang ( and an algorithm by Möller (Appendix 5 of Both are again quite straightforward to implement in constant time.

But none of these moduli-specific algorithms can protect a critical inversion which occurs during RSA key generation: computing \(d = e^{-1} \bmod \phi(n)\), because \(\phi(n)\) is not only not prime, it is not even odd. How to fully protect this computation against side channels had bugged me for some time, but then I hit upon a simple and very useful approach - combine two of the algorithms!

The trick is to factor \(\phi(n)\) into \(2^{k} \cdot o\) for some odd \(o\). This is easily done by counting the low zero bits. Then compute \(e^{-1} \bmod 2^{k}\) and \(e^{-1} \bmod o\) using the two special case algorithms. Because \(2^k\) and \(o\) are relatively prime, the two results can be combined to compute the inverse modulo \(2^k \cdot o = \phi(n)\).

This does require computing \(o^{-1} \bmod 2^{k}\), meaning computing a single modular inversion requires 3 sub-inversions. However for RSA key generation, \(k\) will tend to be small - typically under 8 - and so the two inversions modulo \(2^k\) are very fast, since you only ever have to look at the bottom \(k\) bits.

Overall the performance is excellent. In fact compared to an unprotected implementation of the binary extended algorithm, the CRT-based algorithm, using const-time implementations of the modulo-odd and modulo-\(2^k\) inversions, was between 1.3 and 2 times faster, depending on operand size. For moduli where \(k\) is large and \(o\) is small, the performance is less stellar, but such numbers are not common in cryptography, and even then the performance is at worst half of the (again, completely unprotected against side channels) binary algorithm.

This approach to modular inversions has been implemented in Botan starting in version 2.14.0, removing use of a (incompletely protected, yet much slower) binary extended gcd during RSA key generation.

This CRT based approach seems obvious, but I have not been able to find it described in any book or journal paper, nor have I seen it used in any other implementation. If you are aware of a reference, drop me a line.