Monday, June 16, 2014

A Recipe For Password Security

Several months ago I helped architect a password security scheme for a client. During that process I learned quite a bit about how to encrypt passwords in a secure fashion.

Encryption vs. Hashing

Most developers have heard the term "encryption", which means that data is encoded in such a way that it is not human-readable. But in the context of password security the word “encryption” implies that the encoding can be decoded, that is it’s a “two-way” encryption. While it may be advantageous to decode a user’s password, especially in situations where they have forgotten it, it opens up a security hole. Simply put, if someone attacking your security implementation can guess the algorithm and parameters used to encrypt passwords they can then decrypt all the passwords in your system! At this point you have the equivalent of passwords stored in your system in plaintext – not an excellent approach.

A much more secure method for storing encrypted passwords is to use a cryptographically secure hash1. A “hash” is an algorithm that will take a block of data and from that information generate a value such that if any of the data is changed the hashed value will change as well. The block of data is generally called a “message” and the hashed value is called a “digest”. What is valuable about cryptographic hashes with regard to password security is that they are “one-way”, that is once the password has been hashed it cannot be decrypted back to its original plaintext form. This eliminates the security vulnerability that exists with two way encryption.

By now I’m sure some of you have thought, “Great, if I have this hashed value how to I validate that against the plaintext password typed in by the user?” The answer is, you don’t. When the user types in their password you hash the value that they entered using the same hash algorithm. You then compare that hashed value with the hashed password stored in your system. If they match then the user is authenticated.

Adding Some Salt

So we now have a process for storing passwords in our system in a secure form that cannot be decrypted, thus closing the door that allows attackers access to all the passwords stored in the system. But determined attackers are not so easily thwarted. They will use a rainbow of methods to gain access to your systems, which segues (in a ham-handed fashion) into the next topic, rainbow tables.

Since they can no longer decrypt your passwords attackers will try the next best thing. They’ll take a large list of common words and passwords and hash them using some of the well-known standard algorithms. They’ll then compare this list of hashed words to your password list. Any matches will immediately indicate a successful password search. Given users’ penchant for commonly used passwords the chances are good that the attacker will end up with quite a few successes.

The generally accepted practice for prohibiting this practice is to use a “password salt”2. A salt value is just a randomly generated value that is added to the user’s password before hashing. The salt value is then stored with the user’s hashed password so that the authentication method can use it to hash a password entered by the user.

Now I’m sure some of you are wondering how this prevents rainbow table attacks if the salt value is easily accessible. What the salt value does is require the attacker to regenerate all the values in their rainbow table using the specified salt value. Even if they have a match it will only work for the one user for which that particular salt value was used. While it doesn’t prevent a successful attack it certainly limits it to one success and makes it very slow and cumbersome for the attacker to make additional attempts on other passwords.

Needs Some Pepper

So how can we make it even more difficult for the determined attacker? Well, we can add a “secret salt” value not stored in the database to the password before we hash it. This value would be well known to the system so that it can reproduce it as necessary for authentication but would not be stored in the database. This type of value is commonly known as a “pepper” value. The fact this it is not published or stored makes it even more difficult for an attacker to guess what the plaintext value was before hashing. Unless they have access to the source code for generating the pepper value they may never be able to generate a successful rainbow table.

Simmer Slowly

So it seems like we’ve covered all the bases. But we can’t forget about Moore’s Law3. As CPUs and GPUs get faster and faster it becomes easier to generate multiple rainbow tables so that an attacker can take many guesses at an encrypted password list. What’s a poor, security-minded developer to do?

Well, how about we purposely slow them down?

There are several well known cryptographic hash algorithms4, such as the Message Digest derivatives (MD2, MD4, MD5) and the Secure Hash Algorithms from the National Security Agency (SHA-1, SHA-256) but many of these were designed to work quickly. In some cases, like MD5, the algorithm is considered “cryptographically broken”5. What we really need is a hash algorithm that can be adapted so that it is slow enough to discourage the generation of multiple rainbow tables but fast enough to hash a password quickly after a user types it in for authentication.

Enter bcrypt6. Bcrypt is a hashing function based on the well-regarded Blowfish encryption algorithm that includes an iteration count to make it process more slowly. Even if the attacker knows that bcrypt is the algorithm in use if a properly selected iteration count is employed it renders the generation of rainbow tables very expensive. Furthermore, the iteration count is stored in the hashed result value so it’s forward compatible; that is as computing power continues to increase the iteration count can be increased and applied to existing password hashes so that the generation of rainbow tables continues to be expensive.

A Spicy Meatball

So by using a combination of the right spices (salt and pepper) and the proper cook time (iterations) we can end up with an excellently prepared plate of hash. It’s not perfect - no security approach ever is - but we can certainly make our systems less vulnerable to the point where an attacker will look for victims that are less well-protected. And that’s all we can really hope for, that they look somewhere else.

Additional References

Coding Horror: You're Probably Storing Passwords Incorrectly
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptographic_hash_function
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_(cryptography)
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moores_law
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptographic_hash_function#Cryptographic_hash_algorithms
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MD5
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bcrypt

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