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Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2014 15:20:55 +0000
From: Peter Maxwell <>
Subject: Opinions sought on whether a specific side-channel leakage is ok.

Without exposing too much of my intended design, I'd like to garner some
opinion if that is possible.

As a specific feature of my design, I'm intending on adjusting the
computational & memory work requirement based on password complexity, in a
somewhat probabilistic manner.

So, lets say we can associate a given password with a scalar password
complexity measure in the interval [0,1] with an as yet to be defined
distribution.  To keep things nice and fair, lets assume that upon a
password registration with password complexity p_c the algorithm calculates
an interval [p_min,p_max], 0 < p_min < p_c < p_max < 1, st. the integral
over the distribution from p_min to p_max is kept at a fixed global
constant and the interval is, intuitively at least, centred around p_c.
 Now, as a final step, the algorithm chooses a random value within
[p_min,p_max], say p_r, and determines a computational & memory work
requirement deterministically based on p_r, for example a function w: [0,1]
-> R where w(p_r) maps the complexity measure to something tangible.

Each password complexity measure is kept a secret and after registration of
a password is not known even to the server.  This allows another little
trick that very much benefits the defender but isn't relevant here, only
that the complexity measure is considered secret.

The consequence of this model is that the defender can force weak passwords
to take considerably more work per password guess, thus ameliorating much
of the problem of users picking poor passwords.  Instead of an attacker
being able to get some proportion of passwords almost guaranteed, they'll
have to work just as hard for the low entropy passwords as the high entropy
ones while the defender doesn't - on average - face any computational
disadvantage, assuming login frequency is not dependent on password
complexity and that I get my maths correct (which is dubious given I can't
concentrate due to the pile-driving going on in the building site next
door... the whole building is thumping at around 1Hz).

The problem - and it's a not an insignificant problem - is that there is a
rather obvious side-channel: the time taken to compute a valid login
betrays some information about the password complexity.  Given password
complexity is at least partially related to length, it may fall foul of the
call for submission guideline:

*"Resilience to side-channel attacks (timing attacks, leakages, etc.). In
particular, information should not leak on a password's length."*

The algorithm doesn't leak password bits, it only leaks a password
complexity range that may give some information as to password length or a
fairly large set to which the password may belong.  The other item to note
is that repeated measurements don't give more information, the best an
attacker can do is invert w() to get p_r, and get a rough idea of the range
[p_min,p_max] but they cannot accurately determine p_c.  The interval
p_min,p_max would be controlled by the previous mentioned fixed constant
with obvious implications.

The question is, whether this is an acceptable trade-off, at least as an
optional feature?

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