Thursday, January 12, 2017

RWC 2017 - Is Password Insecurity Inevitable?

Fresh back from an enlightening trip across the pond, I wanted to write about one of my favourite talks, all about password (in)security, from this year's Real World Cryptography conference.

As we know:
  1. Passwords protect everything.
  2. Passwords are terrible.
But happily, Hugo Krawczyk from IBM Research spoke about some great new work to resolve these two seemingly incompatible statements. There were a lot of details in the talk that I'll have to miss out here (slides are available online). In particular, I'm going to focus on 'Part I: Take the burden of choosing and memorising passwords off humans'.

The basic idea - this isn't new - is to have the user memorise a single master password that they use to access a password store. Then the password store derives unique pseudorandom passwords for each service the user wants to access (Google, Facebook, etc.) The problem with this solution is that the password store becomes a single point of failure: if it is compromised, then an offline dictionary attack to find the master password will compromise all of the user's accounts at once.

Krawczyk et al. suggest an improvement: SPHINX, which amusingly stands for "a password Store that Perfectly Hides from Itself (No eXaggeration)". The first idea is for the password store to not keep hold of (even a hash of) the master password - instead it has an independent secret key $k$, and any time the user wants to log in to a service $S$, they send the master password $pwd$ to the store, the store computes a PRF $PRF(k, pwd | S)$ and this will be sent to $S$ as the user's password for $S$. This means that if the store is compromised, the master password and the account passwords can't be learned unless the user communicates with the store. So this works well if the store is in local, offline hardware, where the user is unlikely to use the store after it is compromised by an attacker.

However, the authors go further and replace the PRF with an oblivious PRF. This means the store computes an "encrypted" version of $PRF(k, pwd | S)$ from an "encrypted" $pwd|S$, so doesn't learn the plaintext values of the master password or the service password. In practice this can be achieved by the user (i.e. the user's machine) hashing the string $pwd | S$ into an element $g$ of a Diffie-Hellman group, then computing $h = g^r$, where $r$ is a fresh, random exponent, and sending $h$ to the password store. The store's secret key is an exponent $a$, so it computes $h^a$ and sends this back to the user. The user removes the blinding exponent $r$ (i.e. computes $(h^a)^{r^{-1}} = g^a$) and the result is the unique password for $S$. Now even when the password store is compromised and even if the user communicates with the store, the master password and the account passwords can't be learned.

In principle an attacker could recover all the account passwords by compromising both the password store and a service $S$, learning the secret key $a$ and the service password $g^a$, computing $g = H(pwd|S)$ and perfoming an offline dictionary attack to find $pwd|S$. Then for any other service $S'$, the password can be computed via $H(pwd|S')^a$. But as long as $S$ follows good practice and only stores a hash $H'(g^a)$ of the service password, this attack fails: an offline dictionary attack to recover $g^a$ is unfeasible as it's essentially a random group element.

There are no particularly expensive computations involved in using SPHINX, the communication between the user and SPHINX does not need to be secure (so it could be online somewhere) and the store will work regardless of what password protocol is used by the service, so it's extremely flexible. SPHINX therefore strikes me as both useful and practical, which is surely the definition of Real World Cryptography.

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