Encryption specifics

This page will explain the apecific algorithms and methods Turtl uses to encrypt, decrypt, (de)serialize, and authenticate data.


Every encrypted object in Turtl has its own key. This goes for both boards and notes. This means that every object can be decrypted independently of the profile’s master key (generated from the user’s authentication info).

Encrypted objects have the ability to store their own key in their data, encrypted via another object’s key. Sounds confusing, so the primary example would be this: Note A has its own key that will decrypt its data. Note A is in Board B. Note A’s data contains Note A’s key encrypted with Board B’s key. So if Alice shares Board B with Bob, she can share Board B’s key, and now Bob has the ability to decrypt any note in Board B (including Note A).

This is what allows objects to be sharable in Turtl without compromising the master key…sharing can be done granularly and on a per-object basis. That said the only objects that are currently sharable in Turtl are boards.

It’s important to note that as of v0.6.0, all encrypted objects put their key in the user’s keychain, whether they can be decrypted by a parent object or not. This allows notes to be in zero boards and still be decryptable. On top of this, the keychain gives top-level objects a place to store their key outside of their own data. This makes it easy to change a user’s password: all that’s required is to regenerate their key and re-encrypt and save their keychain entries.

Protected model

All models that use encryption extend the Protected model and use its methods for (de)serialization. This provides a single point in the code for encryption/decryption/serialization/deserialization to occur.

The Protected model not only handles the encryption/decryption of data, but also the encoding of key data into models and/or the finding of keys from the user’s keychain (or from parent objects).


Short for TurtlCrypt, Tcrypt is the main encryption library is the main encryption library for the app. It provides a standard interface for encrypting/decrypting objects and keys, and manages the versioning of previous data.

All encryption, decryption, hashing, key generation, and random number generation go through Tcrypt.


Turtl uses all standard algorithms for key generation, encryption, and decryption: PBKDF2 for key generation, AES-GCM for encryption/decryption, and OpenPGP for asymmetric crypto and sharing. Let’s get in for a closer look!!

Key generation

When you log in, Turtl takes your username (as a salt) and your password (as the main input) and runs them through PBKDF2. It generates a 256-bit key using 100K iterations of SHA256.

This acts as your master key.

Ciphers and modes

Turtl uses SJCL for all low level encryption.

The keys generated for all symmetric encryption are 256-bit and the block mode used is GCM. When encrypting data via the Protected model (and by default otherwise), Turtl always uses a random Initial Vector, generated via crypto.getRandomValues().

Symmetric Serialization format

Tcrypt packs data in the following binary format:

|-2 bytes-| |-1 byte----| |-N bytes-----------| |-16 bytes-| |-N bytes----|
| version | |desc length| |payload description| |    IV    | |payload data|
  1. Version - The serialization version. Lets tcrypt know how this data was serialized and how to parse it.
  2. Description length - How many bytes long the payload description is.
  3. Payload description - Describes the cipher used, the block mode, the padding method, the key derivation method, and possibly more. These are just array indexes of the items at the top of tcrypt.js, with the *_index key names.
  4. Initial vector - The IV this payload uses.
  5. Payload data - Our actual encrypted data, in binary form. Note that before encryption, the payload as a UTF8 byte prepended to it. This byte is random, but if u <= 128 then the payload is binary, and if u > 128 then the payload is UTF8 encoded and needs to be decoded post-decryption. This allows us to NOT blanket encode things, which in the case of files, can sometimes double the size of the payload.


The authentication string given to GCM consists of version, payload description, and iv. If any of these pieces of data are changed between encrypt and decrypt, or the payload itself is changed in any way, the decryption fails and we throw a TcryptAuthFailed exception.

Asymmetric serialization format

Turtl now uses OpenPGP.js for all asymmetric crypto, and relies on that library’s key generation and crypto methods.