Passwords: this isn’t a game show

Have you ever seen a movie where someone is running a computer program to crack a password (or a missile launch code), and it discovers one character at a time? It looks like a Wheel of Fortune contestant correctly guessing a letter or buying a vowel. This is a trope I think writers and screenwriters should avoid.

Passwords don’t work like Wheel of Fortune. If they did, it would mean that each individual character is stored separately, and it would take around the same (boringly brief) length of time to guess each one.

When you sign up for a account on a web site that has reasonable security, the site takes the password you provided and puts it through something called a one-way hash function. The hash function turns your password into a hash value: it transforms something like

Password123

into something like

b2e98ad6f6eb8508dd6a14cfa704bad7f05f6fb1

or

Password124

into

ae5b6bf3a00dabe4bcb06918044f3032c6e7c80c

Hash functions (there are many of them–I used sha1sum for these examples) have several important features:

  1. It works the same way every time (sha1sum always hashes Password123 to b2e98ad6f6eb8508dd6a14cfa704bad7f05f6fb1).
  2. It’s very difficult to find two passwords that have the same hash value, but it’s not impossible. (This means that a hash value does not uniquely determine a password.)
  3. You generally can’t work backwards from the hash value to recover the password (it’s different from encryption, which allows you to decrypt the encrypted value).
  4. A minor change in the password (changing 3 to 4 above) drastically affects the hash value.

So when you set your password, the site hashes your password and saves the hash value, not the original password. Next time you log in, it uses the same hash function to hash the password you just typed in and compares that hash value to the hash value stored next to your username. If the hash values match, then you typed the correct password, and the site gives you access. If they don’t match, you get the “invalid password” message.

That’s one of the many reasons that the Wheel of Fortune thing is so absurd. The site checking the password you just typed doesn’t even know the original password. It’s checking one hash value against another–the whole thing matches or the whole thing fails. So even if a criminal compromises the site through some security vulnerability and manages to download the username/password database, they get a bunch of stuff they can’t read.

In the next post we’ll see that hashing passwords is better than storing passwords in clear text, but that it’s still not sufficient.

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Author: carl

A web programmer and Linux system administrator who would like to be a writer.