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Password hash, store, profit - Passwords13


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Why is proper password hashing essential in protecting your users? And what is proper hashing, anyway?

I was talking at the Passwords13 Las Vegas, USA, a conference focused only on passwords & PIN codes, about various ways of storing users' passwords in a database. I was the first web developer ever to speak at this conference.

I also presented one real world example by using a dumped dataset with several hundred hashed passwords from a small local (Czech) online shop for a major clothing brand. I demonstrated that it's possible to take over user's mailbox (including a mailbox with additional protection) by cracking passwords from this dataset simply by using an online cracking tool. That is few dozens of active mailboxes in several minutes with just a browser. I presented some stats gathered while working with this dataset – how many passwords were successfully cracked by this online tool and how many were additionally cracked using a tool called hashcat on a regular laptop. I recommended better hashing algos than just a plain SHA-1, like scrypt and bcrypt. As a bonus I added few tips like don't send passwords by email.

Published in: Technology

Password hash, store, profit - Passwords13

  1. 1. Michal Špaček, Passwords13, Las Vegas @spazef0rze 1.1. HashHash 2.2. StoreStore 3.3. …… 4.4. Profit!Profit!
  2. 2. Why is proper password hashing essential in protecting your users? And what is proper hashing, anyway? Every year we see a major web site exposing user accounts including e-mails and passwords due to various security issues. Besides these big names there's a lot of smaller leaks which nobody really cares about. Except the guys looking for accounts to have fun with. Leaking users login credentials has fatal consequences and I'll show you why and how to avoid it. Let's have a look at a website of a local though expanding Czech outdoor wear brand.
  3. 3. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze One of the websites this company runs once had a robots.txt file which looked exactly like this. The tmp directory had listing enabled so humans (not robots) could download the files including a backup of the user database. No SQL injection attack needed, it's passwords on a silver platter.
  4. 4. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze 323 usernames & emails + passwords (SHA-1, no salt) The total amount of user accounts was quite low, nothing to compare to the 32 million passwords from the infamous RockYou leak from 2009. Unlike the RockYou passwords which were stored in readable plaintext form, these passwords were hashed using SHA-1 but not salted.
  5. 5. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze 323 usernames & emails + passwords (SHA-1, no salt) Instead of cracking the passwords myself I took a different approach. Is it possible to crack the passwords using just a browser and some third-party service so that anyone with access to the leaked data and virtually no knowledge of how to crack passwords can actually crack them?
  6. 6. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze 111 cracked passwords Using one such online service I was able to recover 111 passwords from the whole data set in few minutes thanks to massive pre-computed lookup tables the site uses. The site employs CAPTCHA which renders the site unusable for cracking larger data sets, but that wasn't the case.
  7. 7. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze exoddus Tbvfs1 9plams P1ll3d Neznašov These are some of the passwords the CrackStation site was able to find in its huge dictionary of words and other strings. The last one is a name of a Czech village and the P1ll3d password meets password criteria for most of the web sites: has at least 6 characters, one capital and some digits.
  8. 8. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze 111 cracked passwords 52 accounts with … Out of that 111 cracked passwords 52 belonged to accounts having an e-mail address hosted at Seznam is a major local search engine in the Czech Republic and also provides e-mail services. Actually, Czech Republic is one of the few countries where local player beats Google.
  9. 9. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze 52 accounts with … How many passwords to the … mailbox itself? In total there were 165 accounts with e-mail hosted at and I wanted to find out how many of those 52 cracked passwords were used also to access the mailboxes. Worth noting is that after finding the data I've notified the owner of the site and recommended them to tell their users to change their passwords and that I first ran this test 6 months after the data leaked. I've re-run the same test 10 months after the leak only to find out that not a single user actually have changed their password. Whether they were really told to do so is something I don't know.
  10. 10. Out of 52 passwords I've recovered using the CrackStation service, 9 of them were also used to access the mailbox hosted at That's 9 users re-using their e-mail password elsewhere and especially to sign in to this e-shop. Gaining access to the mailbox is fatal because it contains messages from other sites sending login credentials after signing up (which nobody changes afterwards) and also because most sites send password reset links via e-mail or even send the password itself so hijacking or getting access to other services is quite possible.
  11. 11. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze … 2 out of 9 … 3 out of 9 … 1 out of 15 And with access to 9 mailboxes it does not stop. Out of 9 users just a few were re-using the password. Accessing the Gmail account was bit challenging as Google has correctly detected that by using Tor anonymising tool I've come from an unusual location.
  12. 12. So Gmail asked for some confirmation that it's really me trying to sign in and wanted me to provide a phone number of that particular user. Well, who else than me would be me, so I said "Google, maybe you already know" and googled that number right away. Nice try, Google.
  13. 13. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze hashcat 164 more cracked passwords I've run the rest of the passwords through the hashcat password cracker and I got 164 more cracked passwords leaving 48 of them uncracked. The tool was running for a week or so before I've interrupted it. My cracking rig was a regular laptop so hashcat used only the CPU with AVX.
  14. 14. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze 164 more cracked passwords 2 also used for mailbox Interesting fact is that out of these hashcat-cracked passwords, only 2 of them were used also for mailbox access. Seems that majority of people and mainly mailboxes in this case used passwords which are already known and added to a dictionary used by the CrackStation service.
  15. 15. Email Password! The reason why people are re-using their e-mail password at other web sites might be the web applications themselves. Look at the sign-up fields above. Users will enter their e-mail password just because the form says so. It'd better have a note saying "Don't use your email password".
  16. 16. Storing user passwords in your database in a wrong way will put your users in real danger. The attacker can gain access to multiple web sites by attacking just one unsafe password storage. My wild guess is that 50% of you are storing the passwords in a bad way. No, not you. The other you.
  17. 17. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze in readable form (in plaintext form) But what does it mean, to store passwords in a wrong way? The simplest form of unsafe password storage is plaintext storage. That is to store the password just like it arrived from the browser. No hashing, that's a rude word. "The application is fully secured". Yeah, no worries.
  18. 18. If you store passwords just like that then this friendly guy will drop by your web application one day. Just don't do it, don't store passwords just like that, in readable plaintext form. If somebody will somehow access your database or find backups, your users' data are in danger.
  19. 19. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze MD5(password) SHA-1(password) CRC32(password) By now you've definitely heard about password hashing – running a password through a hashing function before storing it to a database. That's the right thing to do although not entirely. There are better and worse password hashing functions. And even the better ones can be used wrongly.
  20. 20. So MD5, SHA-1 and CRC32 are not the password hashing functions you are looking for, especially when used as shown before. You've seen a case in the beginning where passwords were hashed using SHA-1 but it wasn't enough to keep them safe and passwords were easily cracked. So it's no.
  21. 21. And it's no not just because MD5 and SHA-1 can be quickly cracked but also because there are online pre-computed lookup tables of different MD5 and SHA-1 hashes mapped to their original strings. If your hashes are not salted, a lot of passwords can be recovered by just googling them.
  22. 22. If these pre-computed lookup tables are not enough to recover the password then maybe a special password cracker utilizing a GPU or two will help. In 2012, Jeremi Gosney built a cluster with 25 GPUs capable of trying 180 billion combinations/sec against the MD5 hash. Yes, that's a computer.
  23. 23. This year Jeremi got his Christmas presents early. Looking at the massive computing power he's got there on the table almost ready to crack your passwords one by one we can only assume that storing MD5 or SHA-1 hashed passwords equals to storing them in plaintext. Don't. Do. That.
  24. 24. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5( MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5( MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5( MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5(MD5( password )))))))))))))))) )))))))))))))))) MD5 and SHA-1 and similar hashing algorithms are superfast and that makes brute-force and other attacks superfast too. Not a good thing for safe password storage, though. The time required to crack the password can be extended by looping the function calls. Although, well, not this way.
  25. 25. The function call loop should be executed at least several thousand times. It also much depends on the algorithm used. If you use MD5 for multiple hashing the total count of collisions found by method called tunnelling gets higher. And I hate tunnels. You know, they're too underground.
  26. 26. From all the things presented so far it's obvious that we need a slow hashing function. Well, kinda slow. The time required for hashing a password should be long enough to make brute-force attack take forever but short enough so that the server can respond to other requests as well.
  27. 27. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze MD5(password + salt) SHA-1(password + salt) If you've heard about password hashing, you've definitely heard about a salt too. Using salt when hashing passwords is essential. Random and unique salt can be stored in readable form in the database and the main purpose of salting is to prevent the attacker to use pre-computed hash lookup tables and to make finding users with same passwords impossible. With no salt, two identical passwords would have identical hashes and that's easy to spot, so salted hashes prevent a Birthday Attack. The example above is a common way of salting, but still uses fast hashes.
  28. 28. Password cracking tools like the Hashcat directly support this simple concatenation and as the attacker has both hash and the salt from the database, cracking salted passwords by brute-force or dictionary attacks means no real problem for them. Speed-wise, it's just like there was no salt used. But as stated earlier the main task for the salt is to prevent Birthday Attacks and querying pre-computed lookup tables and that means it does not matter that much. Just a lil bit.
  29. 29. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze HMAC(password, salt) hash_hmac(sha512, password, salt) Slightly better salting is implemented in HMAC (Hash-based Message Authentication Code) algorithm. First, XOR is applied to the salt, then the salt is concatenated to the password, hashed and then once again. It could be used for password hashing if slow hashing function is used.
  30. 30. The choice of slow hashing function is important but even the SHA-512 is just 10× slower than SHA-256, 30× slower than SHA-1 and 80× slower than MD5. So not that slow. Ultimately, HMAC is not the best choice for secure password hashing. But… there must be something better.
  31. 31. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze bcrypt! Blowfish hashing Oh, yeah, there is! One such algorithm is bcrypt, sometimes also called Blowfish hashing. The function is relatively slow, has built-in support for salt and even multiple hashing. The algorithm has a parameter called cost which says how long the whole password hashing thing should take.
  32. 32. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze crypt() salt=$2y$… password_hash() password_verify() In PHP, bcrypt is supported by the crypt(), if salt is prefixed with $2y$. This prefix is supported starting with PHP 5.3.7, don't use earlier versions. Also, don't use $2a$ and $2x$ prefixes. PHP 5.5 brings nice functions for password hashing, also available as a library for older versions.
  33. 33. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze scrypt PBKDF2 Some other good password hashing algorithms include scrypt and PBKDF2 (Password-Based Key Derivation Function 2). scrypt is far more secure against hardware brute-force attacks than bcrypt by using much more memory, but is available for PHP only as a third-party extension or library. Beginning with PHP 5.5 built-in function hash_pbkdf2() is also available but the rule here is to use scrypt for password hashing whenever you can. If you can't, use bcrypt. Use PBKDF2 only if you can't use bcrypt (and you always can) and don't use anything else.
  34. 34. Never send passwords in e-mail messages. Never, not even after sign-up. Users don't change passwords, they use the original generated one and they keep them in their mailbox. And as you've seen, mailbox is not a secure storage in the long term. All a user has to do to get into troubles is to lose their smartphone or laptop. Also, e-mails are routed through servers with mostly unencrypted drives and they usually talk to each other using unencrypted connections. To add an extra layer of protection encrypt the hash and the salt with a symmetric cipher such as AES-256. Once the application is hit with an SQL Injection or similar attack the key stored in the configuration remains secret and the hashes can't be decrypted easily so passwords cannot be cracked. Encryption won't help if the system is fully compromised and attacker gains access to the key as well but that's not the case very often. Passwords in your database are still properly hashed making them safe, but anything you can do to make attacker's life harder is a good thing.
  35. 35. There's more than just a password hashing to make passwords secure. Never transmit passwords from the browser over plain HTTP, use HTTPS to prevent wiretapping. Also use a certificate signed by a trusted certification authority so that users don't see those strange warnings. The form with a password input field should also be transferred over HTTPS to make sure the attacker can't change the action attribute of the form or inject some malicious JavaScript stealing passwords.
  36. 36. Never send passwords in e-mail messages. Never, not even after sign-up. Users don't change passwords, they use the original generated one and they keep them in their mailbox. And as you've seen, mailbox is not a secure storage in the long term. All a user has to do to get into troubles is to lose their smartphone or laptop. Also, e-mails are routed through servers with mostly unencrypted drives and they usually talk to each other using unencrypted connections.
  37. 37. If your site has a Forgotten password feature never send the password by e-mail. You don't know the password anyway because you keep only hashes in your database, right? Only send a link which will expire in one hour, with a random token which is different for every password reset attempt. The link will take the user to a page where they can set their new password. Again, do not send the new password by e-mail. If your site allows users to register multiple accounts with one e-mail address always display the same message whenever user enters correct e-mail address for resetting the password or not. This way the attacker can't enumerate e-mails in your database.
  38. 38. a76c8ba54d7be5d57daf858987c168a458009312 Michal Špaček @spazef0rze And that's it. Follow me on Twitter for updates from my world of PHP, web security and performance, although I tweet mostly in Czech. I also do trainings so if you're interested in password storage and web security in general let me know. Thanks, bye!
  39. 39. Michal Špaček @spazef0rze Image credits: 10. "Untitled", Masaaki Miyara 22. "Password Cracking HPC", Jeremi Gosney 23. "140 TFLOPS", Jeremi Gosney 26. "Snail in danger near Zadar, Croatia", Robert Thomson 34. "Uno dei chip custom dell'EFF DES cracker", EFF 35. "QUIET...I want to eavesdrop.", Nikos Providakis 36. "Postbox", Schub@ 37. "Seguridad", Juan J. Martínez