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I am reading about ECDSA, and I find that the private key must be in (0,n), with n = FFFFFFFF FFFFFFFF FFFFFFFF FFFFFFFE BAAEDCE6 AF48A03B BFD25E8C D0364141.

Is n the total number of points on the secp256k1 curve? (plus the 0 point)

And how does n limit the range of private keys?

What if a private key is bigger than n?

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  • If you choose privatekey values by a uniform random method as you are supposed to, and if there are one billion bitcoin users each doing one thousand keys every second (around the clock), you'll get d>=n once in about 4,000,000,000,000,000,000 years -- or in other words, not in this universe, and you'll have to live through millions or billions more entire universes to get a single occurrence. Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 3:15

3 Answers 3

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n is the number of points on the curve (including the point at infinity). Private keys are numbers between 1 and n-1, inclusive. 0 is not a valid private key, because its corresponding point would be the point at infinity.

If you'd naively try to compute the public key corresponding to private key d and private key d+n, you'd obtain the same public keys. That means the public key for private key n would also be infinity (same as for private key 0).

For this reason, private keys are restricted to range 1 to n-1: that guarantees that for every non-infinity point on the curve there is exactly one private key.

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If you pick a key > N it will map to another key in the (0, N) range. For example N + 100 is the exact same private key as 100 for all effects and purposes. That's how modular arithmetic works

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Yes, the order of an elliptic curve group gives the number of points in that group and n is the order of secp256k1. If an addition were to result in something larger than the group's order, you apply n as a modulo, and the result lands back within the order. It follows that the private key n+5 is effectively the same as the private key 5 on secp256k1.

For example, while operating in the natural numbers ℕ we know that 13 + 15 = 28. But if we do the same addition on the field ℤ17 (which is limited via mod 17), the same addition would result in 13 + 15 = 11 (28 mod 17). Likewise, you'd get 16 + 16 + 16 = 14 (48 mod 17) in ℤ17.

As Pieter points out, the private key 0 is not valid as it produces the neutral element on secp256k1, the point at infinity.

You may also be interested in this explanation what secp256k1 looks like.

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