Security Hashing and Password Protection

Protecting yourself with passwords is important. Passwords ensure the security and the confidentiality of data. If you’re a web developer, you’ve probably had to make a user account system. The most important aspect of a user account system is how user passwords are protected. User account databases are hacked frequently, so one must do something to protect users’ passwords. The best way to protect passwords is to employ salted password hashing.  Hash functions used to protect passwords are not the same as the hash functions one may have seen in a data structures course. They are meant to be fast, not secure.

Only cryptographic hash functions may be used to implement password hashing. The .NET framework ships with 6 different hashing algorithms:

1.   MD5: 16 bytes (Time to hash 500MB: 1462 ms)
2.   SHA1: 20 bytes (1644 ms)
3.   SHA256: 32 bytes (5618 ms)
4.  SHA384: 48 bytes (3839 ms)
5.   SHA512: 64 bytes (3820 ms)
6.   RIPEMD: 20 bytes (7066 ms)

What is Password Hashing?

A hash is a way of encoding some data to a prefixed amount of bytes via formula in such a way that IT CAN NOT BE REVERSED and that the possibility for two hashes to contain the same value is extremely slim.

Hash algorithms are one way functions. They turn any amount of data into a fixed-length “fingerprint” that cannot be reversed. They also have the property that if the input changes by even a tiny bit, the resulting hash is completely different. This is great for protecting passwords, because we want to store passwords in a form that protects them even if the password file itself is compromised, but at the same time, we need to be able to verify that a user’s password is correct.It should be noted that the hash functions used to protect passwords are not the same as the hash functions you may have seen in a data structures course. The hash functions used to implement data structures such as hash tables are designed to be fast, not secure. Only cryptographic hash functions may be used to implement password hashing.

Hash functions like SHA256, SHA512, RipeMD, and WHIRLPOOL are cryptographic hash functions.

How Hashes are cracked?

 Dictionary and   Brute Force Attacks

The simplest way to crack a hash is to try to guess the password, hashing each guess, and checking if the guess’s hash equals the hash being cracked. If the hashes are equal, the guess is the password. The two most common ways of guessing passwords are dictionary attacks and brute-force attacks.
A dictionary attack uses a file containing words, phrases, common passwords, and other strings that are likely to be used as a password. Each word in the file is hashed, and its hash is compared to the password hash. If they match, that word is the password.

These dictionary files are constructed by extracting words from large bodies of text, and even from real databases of passwords.

A brute-force attack tries every possible combination of characters up to a given length. These attacks are very computationally expensive, and are usually the least efficient in terms of hashes cracked per processor time, but they will always eventually find the password. Passwords should be long enough that searching through all possible character strings to find it will take too long to be worthwhile.

There is no way to prevent dictionary attacks or brute force attacks. They can be made less effective, but there isn’t a way to prevent them altogether. If your password hashing system is secure, the only way to crack the hashes will be to run a dictionary or brute-force attack on each hash.

Lookup Tables

Lookup tables are an extremely effective method for cracking many hashes of the same type very quickly. The general idea is to pre-compute the hashes of the passwords in a password dictionary and store them, and their corresponding password, in a lookup table data structure. A good implementation of a lookup table can process hundreds of hash lookups per second, even when they contain many billions of hashes.

Why to use lookup tables?

They will save computation time and will make running through a dictionary a lot less stressful on CPU. The reason is that we no longer need to hash each string before we compare, we can simply search for the hash, if it’s found, we display the value appended by the colon.

Reverse Lookup Tables

This attack allows an attacker to apply a dictionary or brute-force attack to many hashes at the same time, without having to pre-compute a lookup table.

First, the attacker creates a lookup table that maps each password hash from the compromised user account database to a list of users who had that hash. The attacker then hashes each password guess and uses the lookup table to get a list of users whose password was the attacker’s guess. This attack is especially effective because it is common for many users to have the same password.

 Rainbow Tables

Rainbow tables are a time-memory trade-off technique. They are like lookup tables, except that they sacrifice hash cracking speed to make the lookup tables smaller. Because they are smaller, the solutions to more hashes can be stored in the same amount of space, making them more effective. Rainbow tables that can crack any md5 hash of a password up to 8 characters long exist.

For example say we want to crack all passwords of length 5 and consisting of [ABC…XYZ0123456789]. We can now calculate the hash value. Instead of storing this single pair, we use something that is called a ‘reduce function’. This is a self made one-way function that turns a hash back into a password.  But not the original password (it isn’t a reverse hash-function) but just into some other password.

If we don’t find anything (which is very likely) we apply our reduce function to the input-hash and then hash that result. Now we check the hashes again, regenerate the chain and find out the answer. This can be repeated until we hit our set limit (1000) in that case, if no match has been found, we can’t reverse it.

Phishing

Phishing is the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money), often for malicious reasons, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.

Hackers could create a clone of a website and tell you to enter personal information, which is then emailed to them. Hackers commonly take advantage of these sites to attack people using them at their workplace, homes, or in public in order to take personal and security information that can affect the user or company (if in a workplace environment). 

 Avoiding Security Breaches by Salted Hashing

Lookup tables and rainbow tables only work because each password is hashed the exact same way. If two users have the same password, they’ll have the same password hashes. We can prevent these attacks by randomizing each hash, so that when the same password is hashed twice, the hashes are not the same.

We can randomize the hashes by appending or prepending a random string, called a salt, to the password before hashing. To check if a password is correct, we need the salt, so it is usually stored in the user account database along with the hash, or as part of the hash string itself.

The salt does not need to be secret. Just by randomizing the hashes, lookup tables, reverse lookup tables, and rainbow tables become ineffective. An attacker won’t know in advance what the salt will be, so they can’t pre-compute a lookup table or rainbow table. If each user’s password is hashed with a different salt, the reverse lookup table attack won’t work either. 

 

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