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Date: Fri, 13 Mar 2015 11:41:36 -0400
From: Justin Cappos <>
To: discussions <>
Cc: polypasswordhasher-dev <>
Subject: Re: [PHC] Password hashing by itself is not enough

On Fri, Mar 13, 2015 at 9:34 AM, Jeremy Spilman <> wrote:

> > On Mar 13, 2015, at 8:43 AM, Justin Cappos <> wrote:
> >
> > Multiple passwords protect a secret that obscures all of the hashes.
> This makes it so that groups of passwords must be checked together and all
> must be correct to learn if any were correct.
> Or, pull the secret from memory when you steal the hashes?

Yes, but this seems to be uncommon in disclosed password breaches.  There
are a few studies that have shown that password hash compromises are most
commonly from attacks that wouldn't give an attacker access to RAM.  For
example, SQL injection is still the most common vector.

I do think it's a very innovative way to hide a key! How does it compare
> to, say, a pepper which is only kept in RAM?


I'm not sure I understand where that pepper comes from.  Does an
administrator enter it?  If so, are the admins likely to share the same
value?  (If so, it feels like operational security becomes an issue.)

In either case you need some admin (threshold account) input when the
> server first boots to ensure all users can immediate start logging in. In
> either case the secret can be stolen over the network from a compromised
> server.

I think we likely get in our own way by saying administrator, non admin,
etc.  Really, if you have some reason to believe that an attacker cannot
simply create as many accounts as they like, you can make all of the
accounts 'protector accounts' (or threshold accounts in our prior draft)
*so long as you don't use ICB (partial verification) to allow logins before
a threshold is reached*.

With a threshold like 5, then even if you have a lot of really weak
passwords, the combinatorial explosion for guessing overwhelms the
attacker.  For example, let's say that 5 users choose accounts whose
passwords are approximately the 1000th weakest password.  The attacker
would need to do 1000^5 checks to crack the password.

Some people have commented to us that a reasonably number of users choose
password or 123456, so this would be guessable.  For example, .9% of the
RockYou users chose 123456.   However, since you have to guess *which*
accounts choose this password, the amount of time also becomes massive.  It
is basically a .009^5 probability that each guess is correct.  If you use
tricks like key stretching to make the recombination time long, then this
operation can also take a very long time.

Note, I copied the wrong cracking number from my previous email.  With a
threshold of 5 on RockYou, and an attacker checking for 123456, the time
would be hundreds of years w/ stretch to 1 check per second.  (1 check per
second is sane because the defender will only need to do this operation a
small number of times, often once, per reboot.)

The volatile pepper would be just 32-64 byte rand, so either you steal it
> from RAM and you crack passwords as usual, or you don't steal it and you
> crack zero passwords.
> The PolyPass secret key has an effective entropy probably close enough to
> that to achieve the same effect, assuming public users can't stuff the
> database with their own accounts to be able to reconstruct the secret.

Yes, one needs to ensure an attacker cannot create 'protector accounts'.
However, the security is retained if the created accounts are 'shielded
accounts' (or thresholdless accounts as our old draft called them).


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