Passwords: salts, hashes

In the previous post we saw that network and web site accounts with reasonable security use hash functions to protect passwords.

But even using a hash function isn’t enough, because the bad guys have rainbow tables. A rainbow table is a list of common passwords (like Password123) and their hash values. So if a site suffers a data breach exposing account data, a simple hash function won’t be much of a barrier, because the criminal can compare the hash values (in the breach data) against a rainbow table and recover many of the weaker passwords.

To counter rainbow tables, sites typically salt users’ passwords: when someone creates a password, the site generates some random characters (the salt), appends that to the user’s password, runs the salted password through the hash function, and then stores the hash value and the salt. When the user tries to log in, the site takes the password they typed, appends the salt stored with the user’s account, sends that through the hash function, and compares the hash values.

Salting hashes sets the bar a lot higher, because the criminal would need to compute a new rainbow table for each password (because each password will have a different salt).

This is why I get frustrated with fiction that makes it look easy to crack passwords. Any account worth hacking will likely be protected by some or all of the following safeguards:

  1. salted and hashed passwords
  2. a password policy enforcing complexity rules (e.g., your password has to be at least eight characters, has to include numbers and punctuation characters, and can’t look too much like a word)
  3. active response locking an account after too many failed attempts
  4. two-factor authentication (you log in with your username and password, but then the site won’t give you access until you enter a code it sends to your cell phone)

Active response¬†in particular makes guessing passwords impractical. If your character is trying to break into a network or web site account, too many failed attempts are going to end up locking the target account. Your character is better off trying to steal the password with a phishing attack, social engineering, using a keylogger, exploiting a flaw in the “forgot my password” feature, or even a security camera pointed at the keyboard.

And an account protected by two-factor authentication is nearly unassailable, because your character would need the target’s password and their cell phone. Social engineering might be best here.


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


into something like






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.