Password Security: A Case History SMM:17-1 Password Security: A Case History Robert Morris Ken Thompson AT&T Bell Laboratories Murray Hill, NJ ABSTRACT This paper describes the history of the design of the password security scheme on a remotely accessed time-sharing system. The present design was the result of countering observed attempts to penetrate the sys- tem. The result is a compromise between extreme secu- rity and ease of use. INTRODUCTION Password security on the UNIX- time-sharing system  is provided by a collection of programs whose elaborate and strange design is the outgrowth of many years of experience with earlier versions. To help develop a secure system, we have had a continu- ing competition to devise new ways to attack the security of the system (the bad guy) and, at the same time, to devise new tech- niques to resist the new attacks (the good guy). This competition has been in the same vein as the competition of long standing between manufacturers of armor plate and those of armor-piercing shells. For this reason, the description that follows will trace the history of the password system rather than simply presenting the program in its current state. In this way, the reasons for the design will be made clearer, as the design cannot be under- stood without also understanding the potential attacks. An underlying goal has been to provide password security at minimal inconvenience to the users of the system. For example, those who want to run a completely open system without passwords, or to have passwords only at the option of the individual users, are able to do so, while those who require all of their users to have passwords gain a high degree of security against penetration of the system by unauthorized users. _________________________ - UNIX is a registered trademark of AT&T Bell Labora- tories in the USA and other countries. SMM:17-2 Password Security: A Case History The password system must be able not only to prevent any access to the system by unauthorized users (i.e. prevent them from logging in at all), but it must also prevent users who are already logged in from doing things that they are not authorized to do. The so called ``super-user'' password, for example, is especially critical because the super-user has all sorts of per- missions and has essentially unlimited access to all system resources. Password security is of course only one component of overall system security, but it is an essential component. Experience has shown that attempts to penetrate remote-access systems have been astonishingly sophisticated. Remote-access systems are peculiarly vulnerable to penetra- tion by outsiders as there are threats at the remote terminal, along the communications link, as well as at the computer itself. Although the security of a password encryption algorithm is an interesting intellectual and mathematical problem, it is only one tiny facet of a very large problem. In practice, physical secu- rity of the computer, communications security of the communica- tions link, and physical control of the computer itself loom as far more important issues. Perhaps most important of all is con- trol over the actions of ex-employees, since they are not under any direct control and they may have intimate knowledge about the system, its resources, and methods of access. Good system secu- rity involves realistic evaluation of the risks not only of deli- berate attacks but also of casual unauthorized access and accidental disclosure. PROLOGUE The UNIX system was first implemented with a password file that contained the actual passwords of all the users, and for that reason the password file had to be heavily protected against being either read or written. Although historically, this had been the technique used for remote-access systems, it was com- pletely unsatisfactory for several reasons. The technique is excessively vulnerable to lapses in secu- rity. Temporary loss of protection can occur when the password file is being edited or otherwise modified. There is no way to prevent the making of copies by privileged users. Experience with several earlier remote-access systems showed that such lapses occur with frightening frequency. Perhaps the most memorable such occasion occurred in the early 60's when a system administrator on the CTSS system at MIT was editing the password file and another system administrator was editing the daily message that is printed on everyone's terminal on login. Due to a software design error, the temporary editor files of the two users were interchanged and thus, for a time, the password file was printed on every terminal when it was logged in. Once such a lapse in security has been discovered, Password Security: A Case History SMM:17-3 everyone's password must be changed, usually simultaneously, at a considerable administrative cost. This is not a great matter, but far more serious is the high probability of such lapses going unnoticed by the system administrators. Security against unauthorized disclosure of the passwords was, in the last analysis, impossible with this system because, for example, if the contents of the file system are put on to magnetic tape for backup, as they must be, then anyone who has physical access to the tape can read anything on it with no res- triction. Many programs must get information of various kinds about the users of the system, and these programs in general should have no special permission to read the password file. The infor- mation which should have been in the password file actually was distributed (or replicated) into a number of files, all of which had to be updated whenever a user was added to or dropped from the system. THE FIRST SCHEME The obvious solution is to arrange that the passwords not appear in the system at all, and it is not difficult to decide that this can be done by encrypting each user's password, putting only the encrypted form in the password file, and throwing away his original password (the one that he typed in). When the user later tries to log in to the system, the password that he types is encrypted and compared with the encrypted version in the pass- word file. If the two match, his login attempt is accepted. Such a scheme was first described in [3, p.91ff.]. It also seemed advisable to devise a system in which neither the password file nor the password program itself needed to be protected against being read by anyone. All that was needed to implement these ideas was to find a means of encryption that was very difficult to invert, even when the encryption program is available. Most of the standard encryp- tion methods used (in the past) for encryption of messages are rather easy to invert. A convenient and rather good encryption program happened to exist on the system at the time; it simulated the M-209 cipher machine  used by the U.S. Army during World War II. It turned out that the M-209 program was usable, but with a given key, the ciphers produced by this program are trivial to invert. It is a much more difficult matter to find out the key given the cleartext input and the enciphered output of the pro- gram. Therefore, the password was used not as the text to be encrypted but as the key, and a constant was encrypted using this key. The encrypted result was entered into the password file. ATTACKS ON THE FIRST APPROACH Suppose that the bad guy has available the text of the pass- word encryption program and the complete password file. Suppose SMM:17-4 Password Security: A Case History also that he has substantial computing capacity at his disposal. One obvious approach to penetrating the password mechanism is to attempt to find a general method of inverting the encryp- tion algorithm. Very possibly this can be done, but few success- ful results have come to light, despite substantial efforts extending over a period of more than five years. The results have not proved to be very useful in penetrating systems. Another approach to penetration is simply to keep trying potential passwords until one succeeds; this is a general crypta- nalytic approach called key search. Human beings being what they are, there is a strong tendency for people to choose relatively short and simple passwords that they can remember. Given free choice, most people will choose their passwords from a restricted character set (e.g. all lower-case letters), and will often choose words or names. This human habit makes the key search job a great deal easier. The critical factor involved in key search is the amount of time needed to encrypt a potential password and to check the result against an entry in the password file. The running time to encrypt one trial password and check the result turned out to be approximately 1.25 milliseconds on a PDP-11/70 when the encryp- tion algorithm was recoded for maximum speed. It is takes essen- tially no more time to test the encrypted trial password against all the passwords in an entire password file, or for that matter, against any collection of encrypted passwords, perhaps collected from many installations. If we want to check all passwords of length n that consist entirely of lower-case letters, the number of such passwords is 26n. If we suppose that the password consists of printable char- acters only, then the number of possible passwords is somewhat less than 95n. (The standard system ``character erase'' and ``line kill'' characters are, for example, not prime candidates.) We can immediately estimate the running time of a program that will test every password of a given length with all of its char- acters chosen from some set of characters. The following table gives estimates of the running time required on a PDP-11/70 to test all possible character strings of length n chosen from vari- ous sets of characters: namely, all lower-case letters, all lower-case letters plus digits, all alphanumeric characters, all 95 printable ASCII characters, and finally all 128 ASCII charac- ters. 26 lower-case 36 lower-case letters 62 alphanumeric 95 printable all 128 ASCII n letters and digits characters characters characters 1 30 msec. 40 msec. 80 msec. 120 msec. 160 msec. 2 800 msec. 2 sec. 5 sec. 11 sec. 20 sec. 3 22 sec. 58 sec. 5 min. 17 min. 43 min. 4 10 min. 35 min. 5 hrs. 28 hrs. 93 hrs. 5 4 hrs. 21 hrs. 318 hrs. 6 107 hrs. Password Security: A Case History SMM:17-5 One has to conclude that it is no great matter for someone with access to a PDP-11 to test all lower-case alphabetic strings up to length five and, given access to the machine for, say, several weekends, to test all such strings up to six characters in length. By using such a program against a collection of actual encrypted passwords, a substantial fraction of all the passwords will be found. Another profitable approach for the bad guy is to use the word list from a dictionary or to use a list of names. For exam- ple, a large commercial dictionary contains typicallly about 250,000 words; these words can be checked in about five minutes. Again, a noticeable fraction of any collection of passwords will be found. Improvements and extensions will be (and have been) found by a determined bad guy. Some ``good'' things to try are: - The dictionary with the words spelled backwards. - A list of first names (best obtained from some mailing list). Last names, street names, and city names also work well. - The above with initial upper-case letters. - All valid license plate numbers in your state. (This takes about five hours in New Jersey.) - Room numbers, social security numbers, telephone numbers, and the like. The authors have conducted experiments to try to determine typical users' habits in the choice of passwords when no con- straint is put on their choice. The results were disappointing, except to the bad guy. In a collection of 3,289 passwords gath- ered from many users over a long period of time; 15 were a single ASCII character; 72 were strings of two ASCII characters; 464 were strings of three ASCII characters; 477 were string of four alphamerics; 706 were five letters, all upper-case or all lower-case; 605 were six letters, all lower-case. An additional 492 passwords appeared in various available dic- tionaries, name lists, and the like. A total of 2,831, or 86% of this sample of passwords fell into one of these classes. There was, of course, considerable overlap between the dic- tionary results and the character string searches. The dictionary SMM:17-6 Password Security: A Case History search alone, which required only five minutes to run, produced about one third of the passwords. Users could be urged (or forced) to use either longer pass- words or passwords chosen from a larger character set, or the system could itself choose passwords for the users. AN ANECDOTE An entertaining and instructive example is the attempt made at one installation to force users to use less predictable pass- words. The users did not choose their own passwords; the system supplied them. The supplied passwords were eight characters long and were taken from the character set consisting of lower-case letters and digits. They were generated by a pseudo-random number generator with only 215 starting values. The time required to search (again on a PDP-11/70) through all character strings of length 8 from a 36-character alphabet is 112 years. Unfortunately, only 215 of them need be looked at, because that is the number of possible outputs of the random number gen- erator. The bad guy did, in fact, generate and test each of these strings and found every one of the system-generated passwords using a total of only about one minute of machine time. IMPROVEMENTS TO THE FIRST APPROACH 1. Slower Encryption Obviously, the first algorithm used was far too fast. The announcement of the DES encryption algorithm  by the National Bureau of Standards was timely and fortunate. The DES is, by design, hard to invert, but equally valuable is the fact that it is extremely slow when implemented in software. The DES was implemented and used in the following way: The first eight char- acters of the user's password are used as a key for the DES; then the algorithm is used to encrypt a constant. Although this con- stant is zero at the moment, it is easily accessible and can be made installation-dependent. Then the DES algorithm is iterated 25 times and the resulting 64 bits are repacked to become a string of 11 printable characters. 2. Less Predictable Passwords The password entry program was modified so as to urge the user to use more obscure passwords. If the user enters an alpha- betic password (all upper-case or all lower-case) shorter than six characters, or a password from a larger character set shorter than five characters, then the program asks him to enter a longer password. This further reduces the efficacy of key search. These improvements make it exceedingly difficult to find any individual password. The user is warned of the risks and if he cooperates, he is very safe indeed. On the other hand, he is not Password Security: A Case History SMM:17-7 prevented from using his spouse's name if he wants to. 3. Salted Passwords The key search technique is still likely to turn up a few passwords when it is used on a large collection of passwords, and it seemed wise to make this task as difficult as possible. To this end, when a password is first entered, the password program obtains a 12-bit random number (by reading the real-time clock) and appends this to the password typed in by the user. The con- catenated string is encrypted and both the 12-bit random quantity (called the salt) and the 64-bit result of the encryption are entered into the password file. When the user later logs in to the system, the 12-bit quan- tity is extracted from the password file and appended to the typed password. The encrypted result is required, as before, to be the same as the remaining 64 bits in the password file. This modification does not increase the task of finding any individual password, starting from scratch, but now the work of testing a given character string against a large collection of encrypted passwords has been multiplied by 4096 (212). The reason for this is that there are 4096 encrypted versions of each password and one of them has been picked more or less at random by the system. With this modification, it is likely that the bad guy can spend days of computer time trying to find a password on a system with hundreds of passwords, and find none at all. More important is the fact that it becomes impractical to prepare an encrypted dictionary in advance. Such an encrypted dictionary could be used to crack new passwords in milliseconds when they appear. There is a (not inadvertent) side effect of this modifica- tion. It becomes nearly impossible to find out whether a person with passwords on two or more systems has used the same password on all of them, unless you already know that. 4. The Threat of the DES Chip Chips to perform the DES encryption are already commercially available and they are very fast. The use of such a chip speeds up the process of password hunting by three orders of magnitude. To avert this possibility, one of the internal tables of the DES algorithm (in particular, the so-called E-table) is changed in a way that depends on the 12-bit random number. The E-table is inseparably wired into the DES chip, so that the commercial chip cannot be used. Obviously, the bad guy could have his own chip designed and built, but the cost would be unthinkable. 5. A Subtle Point To login successfully on the UNIX system, it is necessary after dialing in to type a valid user name, and then the correct password for that user name. It is poor design to write the login SMM:17-8 Password Security: A Case History command in such a way that it tells an interloper when he has typed in a invalid user name. The response to an invalid name should be identical to that for a valid name. When the slow encryption algorithm was first implemented, the encryption was done only if the user name was valid, because otherwise there was no encrypted password to compare with the supplied password. The result was that the response was delayed by about one-half second if the name was valid, but was immediate if invalid. The bad guy could find out whether a particular user name was valid. The routine was modified to do the encryption in either case. CONCLUSIONS On the issue of password security, UNIX is probably better than most systems. The use of encrypted passwords appears reason- ably secure in the absence of serious attention of experts in the field. It is also worth some effort to conceal even the encrypted passwords. Some UNIX systems have instituted what is called an ``external security code'' that must be typed when dialing into the system, but before logging in. If this code is changed periodically, then someone with an old password will likely be prevented from using it. Whenever any security procedure is instituted that attempts to deny access to unauthorized persons, it is wise to keep a record of both successful and unsuccessful attempts to get at the secured resource. Just as an out-of-hours visitor to a computer center normally must not only identify himself, but a record is usually also kept of his entry. Just so, it is a wise precaution to make and keep a record of all attempts to log into a remote- access time-sharing system, and certainly all unsuccessful attempts. Bad guys fall on a spectrum whose one end is someone with ordinary access to a system and whose goal is to find out a par- ticular password (usually that of the super-user) and, at the other end, someone who wishes to collect as much password infor- mation as possible from as many systems as possible. Most of the work reported here serves to frustrate the latter type; our experience indicates that the former type of bad guy never was very successful. We recognize that a time-sharing system must operate in a hostile environment. We did not attempt to hide the security aspects of the operating system, thereby playing the customary make-believe game in which weaknesses of the system are not dis- cussed no matter how apparent. Rather we advertised the password algorithm and invited attack in the belief that this approach would minimize future trouble. The approach has been successful. Password Security: A Case History SMM:17-9 References  Ritchie, D.M. and Thompson, K. The UNIX Time-Sharing System. Comm. ACM 17 (July 1974), pp. 365-375.  Proposed Federal Information Processing Data Encryption Standard. Federal Register (40FR12134), March 17, 1975  Wilkes, M. V. Time-Sharing Computer Systems. American Elsevier, New York, (1968).  U. S. Patent Number 2,089,603.
Generated on 2015-07-19 22:36:15 by $MirOS: src/scripts/roff2htm,v 1.80 2015/01/02 13:54:19 tg Exp $
These manual pages and other documentation are copyrighted by their respective writers;
their source is available at our CVSweb,
AnonCVS, and other mirrors. The rest is Copyright © 2002–2015 The MirOS Project, Germany.
This product includes material provided by Thorsten Glaser.
This manual page’s HTML representation is supposed to be valid XHTML/1.1; if not, please send a bug report – diffs preferred.