Password Storage Cheat Sheet

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Contents

Introduction

Media covers the theft of large collections of passwords on an almost daily basis. Media coverage of password theft discloses the password storage scheme, the weakness of that scheme, and often discloses a large population of compromised credentials that can affect multiple web sites or other applications. This article provides guidance on properly storing passwords, secret question responses, and similar credential information. Proper storage helps prevent theft, compromise, and malicious use of credentials. Information systems store passwords and other credentials in a variety of protected forms. Common vulnerabilities allow the theft of protected passwords through attack vectors such as SQL Injection. Protected passwords can also be stolen from artifacts such as logs, dumps, and backups.

Specific guidance herein protects against stored credential theft but the bulk of guidance aims to prevent credential compromise. That is, this guidance helps designs resist revealing users’ credentials or allowing system access in the event threats steal protected credential information. For more information and a thorough treatment of this topic, refer to the Secure Password Storage Threat Model here http://goo.gl/Spvzs.

Guidance

Do not limit the character set or length of credentials

Some organizations restrict the 1) types of special characters and 2) length of credentials accepted by systems because of their inability to prevent SQL Injection, Cross-site scripting, command-injection and other forms of injection attacks. These restrictions, while well-intentioned, facilitate certain simple attacks such as brute force.

Do not apply length, character set, or encoding restrictions on the entry or storage of credentials. Continue applying encoding, escaping, masking, outright omission, and other best practices to eliminate injection risks.

Use a cryptographically strong credential-specific salt

A salt is fixed-length cryptographically-strong random value. Append credential data to the salt and use this as input to a protective function. Store the protected form appended to the salt as follows:

[protected form] = [salt] + protect([protection func], [salt] + [credential]);*

Follow these practices to properly implement credential-specific salts:

  • Generate a unique salt upon creation of each stored credential (not just per user or system wide);
  • Use cryptographically-strong random [*3] data;
  • As storage permits, use a 32bit or 64b salt (actual size dependent on protection function);
  • Scheme security does not depend on hiding, splitting, or otherwise obscuring the salt.

Salts serve two purposes: 1) prevent the protected form from revealing two identical credentials and 2) augment entropy fed to protecting function without relying on credential complexity. The second aims to make pre-computed lookup attacks [*2] on an individual credential and time-based attacks on a population intractable.