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Date: Sun, 31 Aug 2014 15:46:58 +0200
From: Thomas Pornin <>
Subject: Re: [PHC] An additional PHS API to include a string?

On Sun, Aug 31, 2014 at 07:31:22AM -0400, Bill Cox wrote:
> I think this is important enough of an issue that the PHC should
> recommend an additional interface that takes this string and password
> as the only hashing parameters, and where the string is suitable for
> storage as an ASCII text field in a database or password file.

As Krisztián points out, this is mostly orthogonal to the actual hash
function, so it can be decided later. However, I totally agree with
Marsh and Greg: this is important. Casual observation of what people do
in practice with cryptographic algorithms (e.g. by reading their
panicked questions on specialized online forums) shows that any method
to get things awfully wrong _will_ be used by some people. In
particular, if the function needs a salt and the API requests the salt
as a separate parameter (as is common with PBKDF2 implementations), then
an alarmingly high number of developers will use a fixed constant salt,
or use the password itself as salt.

Storing all parameters and salt along with the hash value in a single
character string, and (crucially) making the implementation by default
generate the salt values randomly, will make the situation better. This
is what can be observed right now: botched usages of bcrypt are much
rarer than PBKDF2-based abominations.

Ideally, PHC should concentrate on the cryptographic qualities of the
candidates, using code made for research, not for production.
Production-ready implementations will come later on, for the winner(s),
and these will include a simplified string-based API. Developers at
large will cautiously wait for these implementations to emerge, and use

I do not believe that things will go that way, though. Some people with
the "early adopter" frame of mind will not wait; they will use the
reference implementations right away (I suppose that some have already
begun). Others, based on some assumption of "purity" (or any other
name), will insist on using the "reference" code, and not any other
implementation. For this reason, in the case of Makwa, I took care to
already define a string-based format and implement it right away in the
reference code. Thus, Makwa offers right now the simplified API that
we are talking about here.

On the up side, this means that if you need C or Java code which handles
some Base64 encoding/decoding for salts and parameters, then you can
reuse the functions from Makwa's reference implementations. On the other
hand, there cannot be a single, unified string format which will fit all
candidates, since they differ in parameter types and ranges.

So while I agree with you that it would be better if the PHC candidates
already included a simple string-based API in their reference
implementations, I must point out that it does not seem feasible to
define a _generic_ API and format which will fit all candidates, so this
will have to wait for the list of candidates to thin out (as Krisztián

Some extra notes:

 - String outputs should be compatible with "whatever needs strings", e.g.
   /etc/shadow files on Unix-like systems. The list of allowed or
   disallowed characters thus varies, depending on context. In general,
   you should stick to plain ASCII without space or control characters,
   and you should avoid:

     ':' and '$' (for /etc/shadow files)
     '<' and '>' (for XML)
     '"' amd ''' (for CSV files)
     '`' and '\' (for literal strings)

   In the case of Makwa, I used Base64 (letters, digits, '+' and '/')
   and '_' as separator.

 - If you need something like Base64, then please use actual Base64, not
   just something similar (like bcrypt does). It helps for implementing
   in various languages which may already feature some Base64 machinery,
   e.g. C#/.NET. (Removing the trailing '=' signs may be worthwhile,

 - String encoding for the output is fine, but you must also mind the
   input. Password hashing is about hashing passwords (duh), and
   passwords tend to be sequences of characters. Invariably, any
   password hashing function begins by converting a sequence of
   characters into bytes. C-based implementations often assume that
   the conversion has already been done, but this is a known source
   of bugs; famously, one widespread implementation of bcrypt had
   trouble processing non-ASCII characters, and I saw the same bug
   in PGP 5.5 code (because of assumptions on the signedness of the
   'char' C type).

   We cannot ignore the non-Western world; thus, ISO-8859-1 ("latin-1")
   encoding is not appropriate. We have to embrace Unicode, which means
   UTF-8, UTF-16 or some other encoding. Unfortunately, humans have been
   extremely creative with regards to writing systems, which means
   ambiguity (e.g. even a simple "é" character has several possible
   decompositions in code points). Therefore, it seems best if any
   implementation of a password hashing function, in a language where
   strings are strings (i.e. almost all of them except C and C++), takes
   care to apply strictly defined and unambiguous encoding rules.

See Annex A of Makwa's specification for further discussion on this

	--Thomas Pornin

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