Real Password Security

With recent posts by Frank Mash and Stewart Smith about password protecting, I am reminded of all the privacy vs. security arguments we have going on in the United States. Basically, I see a somewhat similar situation — how much privacy do folks give up for the sake of security is analogous to how much calculation, how many hoops to jump through, to ensure that data is secured properly.

On the one hand, the analogy falls apart, because encryption calculation times are much less of an “inconvenience” than an invasion of privacy, and thus the argument gets usurped. It’s just a function, or a few calculations, no big deal. We all use SSH instead of telnet, and hopefully SFTP instead of FTP, because plaintext passwords are bad.

As a retort, most folks do not use SSL-enabled MySQL, and some do not even use SSL-enabled http. Why? Because it’s slow! Well, we do not want anything slow! But the security is worth the slowness! What? You mean people will go to another web site if yours is too slow? But the competitor is not as secure!!!!! So the analogy works there.

The analogy also works, when you consider how valuable the data is that you are attempting to lock up. Financial and health institutions need as high a level of encryption as possible for passwords, and any organization that stores a federal ID number should encrypt that. Nobody wants their privacy violated by having their health information exposed, their identity stolen, their bank accounts drained and their credit cards maxxed out.

Many people worry about things that are basically public information. For instance, in the US, the bank account number and the routing number are both printed on every check. Electronic Fund Transfers (EFTs) require three numbers — the checking account number, the bank routing number, and the amount. Or at least, that is all I type in. Perhaps my account stores address information and it is checked against that, but I am not asked for my billing address, as I am with a credit card transaction.

Some people guard their bank account number with extreme privacy, but it is in plain sight on the bottom of every paper check written!

Similarly, does it matter if someone cracks my password in some applications? How much damage could someone do if they got my password to a newspaper site. What are they going to do, write a letter to the editor or a comment? You’re not liable if someone cracks your server and then uses it to port-scan government agencies. It’s just a pain when you have to wipe your OS and start over. But no valuable information is lost, just time and patience.

At work, sure, they could get their hands on trade secrets if they cracked my desktop, laptop, VPN, or email password.

What about a dating site? What about a community forum? Should my password on be stored as tightly as my password on What does it matter if either password is cracked? Sure, if they try that same password on paypal, and I am dumb enough to use the same password for important data that I do for non-important data, my password will be stolen.

This is, to me, one of the greatest things about wikis. Sure, people have vandalized wikis, but it’s much more satisfying for folks to vandalize a site that’s not “open”. Someone is going to steal a new $3,000 bicycle that’s not locked up, but nobody is going to touch the old beater with a rusty frame, missing front wheel, flat back tire.

And of course, your application probably falls somewhere in between “everyone wants it” and “nobody wants it”. One of the things I say over and over in the presentations I give is “think about it.” Think about the security you need. Do a risk analysis. If you want your data secure, write it on a piece of paper and have recipients swallow it after they’ve read it. For any other security method, think about the gaps, and think about what really matters.

As a user, think about the ramifications of your passwords, as well. Many sites without “important” information will e-mail your password if you forget it. There it is, in plaintext for the world to intercept. I keep a few passwords at any given time (and change them every so often) — “really secure” ones, for financial institutions and such, “somewhat secure” ones, for things like blogging sites, and then “throwaway” ones, for sites where the info is not important, and I would suffer very little if my password is “cracked”.

As well, by highlighting the encryption functions (MD5() and SHA1()) in MySQL, both articles imply that applications should call the encryption functions within MySQL. If an application is using encryption at all, it should be done as close to the user as possible. A client-side encryption such as a Javascript function is much better, security-wise, than using MySQL. You want to encrypt it *before* it goes over the network. If someone’s sniffing the network, then running SELECT nickname FROM myUser WHERE username='sheeri' and password=SHA1('kritzer'); is pointless — even if you salt the data. Someone can sniff the packet and find the plaintext ‘kritzer’ — either between the client’s browser and the web server, or between the web server and the database server.

Stewart’s post did not mention that a JOIN is actually the best way to go — JOIN the words table with the passwords on the salted hash, and then you can possibly retrieve a password. As well, if I were a cracker, I wouldn’t care about using a VIEW, I’d just add a “saltedmd5” column to my table, index it, and then JOIN the tables (creating an index on the table field if need be). Because he was comparing md5 sums, not actually trying to compare passwords through an application, it means he had a backdoor to make database calls, so we could indeed assume a JOIN is possible.

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