Auth in a Nutshell: Passwords

on the subject of passwords

Kevin Wang · Mon, May 27, 2019 Last modified 2020-11-01 · 15 min read 3012 Words Permalink · Repo

This is Part 2 of my series on how I built the authentication system in Governor and what I learned in the process. Here are links to all sections:

  • Part 1 Auth in a Nutshell: Cryptography
  • Part 2 Auth in a Nutshell: Passwords

Now that we have covered the cryptographic primitives, it is time to begin assembling them into the useful components of an authentication system.

Creating an account #

Creating a new account is the first time a user interacts with the Governor auth engine, and that is most likely the component that you as a developer will be creating first as well. While the creation of an account may seem to have no impact on authentication, it is a crucial part of the auth security model. First, the user enters their information on the frontend, and it is posted to the following endpoint:

"POST /api/u/user"
  "username": "<username>",
  "password": "<password>",
  "email": "<email>",
  "first_name": "<first name>",
  "last_name": "<last name>",

The backend then validates the input to ensure that it conforms to some constraints, as it should for all requests. A web request should never be trusted by default by the web server. A user may unintentionally enter in bogus or incorrect information, or the HTTP request may not even be issued by your own web frontend client and instead by some malicious actor via an arbitrary http client. One can always assume that given enough time, an attack will eventually occur. Validation consists of checking that:

  1. All the required fields are entered. (Username, password, and email definitely need to be present. First and last name may vary depending on the use case.)
  2. All the fields do not exceed a certain reasonably long length that covers 99.9% of sanctioned use cases. A user probably did not intend to enter in a 256 character long first or last name. (Not to mention this would give your web designers a big headache.)
  3. The password is of an appropriate length. Aside from the most common passwords which allow attackers to use dictionary attacks or rainbow tables, password strength is almost entirely dependent on its length and the size of its alphabet1. The longer the password the better. (You can try generating your own here .)
  4. The username and email are unique. (For obvious reasons.)
  5. The email is valid.

In step 5, the validity of the email address is checked by sending an email to the address with a unique random key. Assuming that the request passed checks 1 through 4, the information is put into a cache (Governor currently uses Redis by default), with a randomly generated key and a configurable time limit before it is erased from memory. At the same time, an email with the key is sent via Governor’s SMTP email service to the user’s email address. If the user has entered a valid email address, he or she should receive the email and complete their sign up with the key which posts a request to:

"POST /api/u/user/confirm"
  "key": "<confirmation key>",

It is necessary to validate the email address because email serves as the de facto method to contact the user and handle other authentication concerns, such as password reset and login notifications. Tying every account to a unique validated email has the added benefit of reducing user creation spam, as any emails that fail validation prevent the account from being created.

Once the user has confirmed that their email is valid, the account creation process moves into its next phase.

Passwords #

One might be tempted to just put all the user’s information verbatim into the users table in the database. Unfortunately, storing passwords in plaintext is a security issue that we are all too well aware of by now2. Users place their trust in the website to safely store their information, and that trust needs to be respected.

Passwords should not even be encrypted and stored in the database. First and foremost, it does not solve the underlying problem, it just obfuscates it and moves it up one level. The master key to all the passwords must be stored somewhere.

Second, even if the key were somehow safely stored, it would have to be replaced every once in a while. Assume that we are using the strongest encryption available to us, symmetric encryption, and our chosen algorithm is the industry standard AES. AES depends on a key and a random initialization vector which is at most 16 bytes, but more often 12 bytes for modes such as GCM. As mentioned in Part 1, any reuse of an initialization vector with the same key on a symmetric cipher immediately breaks the cipher. Thus it is guaranteed that every 2^96 password encryptions there will be a collision. However, this does not take into account the birthday problem, which predicts that there more than likely be a collision in initialization vectors after only 2^48 encryptions3. Thus it is recommended not to use a key for more than 2^32 encryptions4. This is enough to give everyone on the planet just 1 password reset.

Finally, any attacker who manages to guess the master key, or more likely phish it from vulnerable sources , now has access to all the passwords.

Currently, the safest method of storing passwords is with cryptographic password hashes, of which the details and motivations behind each step are important to understand.

Hashing a password #

Again, a password hash is a one-way (irreversible) function. Critically, it is also extremely slow to execute (targeting several hundred milliseconds on the target machine). This prevents anyone—hackers, the admins, even the user—from ever recovering the password from the hash itself in any reasonable amount of time. If the hash is cryptographically secure, the output will be highly random and the only way to find the original password is to try every possible password. Assume that some attackers would like to break a 256 bit hash before the sun explodes5, they would need a hash rate of 2*10^59 Hashes/second. A hash requires at least 100ms to compute, thus the attackers would need 2*10^52 Summit supercomputers6 working around the clock to meet the deadline.

Checking whether a password is correct is simple: hash the password, and compare the hash to the corresponding stored password hash in the database. If they match, the password matches, otherwise they do not. This process takes at most several hundred milliseconds.

Unfortunately, humans are lazy users, and not all of them use diceware to generate passwords like “correct horse battery staple”7. It is likely that 10% of your users will have one of these passwords . This means that naively hashing passwords will lead to the same 25 password hashes in your database, which if ever obtained by an attacker, would be extremely easy to identify. Attackers will also use rainbow tables full of passwords and their precomputed hashes. This reduces the problem of breaking a simple password’s hash into a lookup in the table. If a rainbow table is not available, dictionary attacks are also common. Naively storing hashes means that any users with the same password have their passwords all broken at the same time. In order to address these issues, one should salt passwords before storage.

Salting a password #

Naively storing password hashes looks like H(x) -> hash_x, where H is the hash function. Salting a password involves concatenating some randomly generated bytes, known as the salt, to the password prior to hashing it. Salting looks like H(x+salt) -> (hash_xs, salt), and both the hash and the salt are stored in the database. When checking whether the user entered the same password in the future, the salt is retrieved from the database, concatenated in the same exact manner to the password, and the resulting hash is compared to the stored hash. This process has the benefit of generating different hashes for the same password input, thus resolving the previously mentioned issues. For example, H("hunter2"+"31415") != H("hunter2"+"27182"). Even though the passwords are the same, the random salts are different.

There are several rules for using salts effectively:

  • Every time the user changes the password, a new salt should be generated in the event that the user uses the same password again.
  • Salts should be truly random and unique. The more predictable the salt, the more likely it will exist in a rainbow table.
  • Salts should be as long as necessary to guarantee that every single user is assigned a unique salt. Uuid’s are typically 128 bits in size, thus it makes sense to make salts at least the same length.

Choosing a hash #

With hashing and salting out of the way, now we are left with a choice for the hashing algorithm. With all the options of password hashes out there, it can be difficult to choose a hash. Decision fatigue is something that afflicts me, and hopefully my summary of the most common algorithms can help save you the trouble of researching for yourself.

Writing your own #

Do not write your own cryptographic algorithm for anything unless you are an active researcher in the field. Even then, do not use your algorithm in production until it has been vetted in numerous security reviews by your peers, and has been battletested by others for weaknesses. I can almost guarantee that you will not need or want to build your own cryptographic algorithm. Leverage the work of experts in the field.

Even if you think you understand the algorithm back to front, do not implement it yourself. Implementation matters in security, and you could potentially be exposing yourself to side-channel attacks like timing attacks in the process. Do not implement a cryptographic algorithm by yourself.


Normal cryptographic hashes have most of the properties that we want in a password hash, except for the length of time to execute the hash. Password hashes should be slow to deter brute force attacks. PBKDF2 addresses this by recursively calling a normal cryptographic hash, say an HMAC of SHA-256, over a large amount of iterations. In fact, this is a popular choice of hash function for use in PBKDF2, and the resulting algorithm is called PBKDF2-HMAC-SHA-256. However, one can replace HMAC-SHA-256 with any other cryptographic hashing algorithm, such as BLAKE2b to form PBKDF2-BLAKE2b. The number of iterations you will need to use for PBKDF2 will be at least on the order of 10^6.

Unfortunately, the base hash of PBKDF2 is not guaranteed to be resistant to more modern attacks. SHA-2 and BLAKE2 can be efficiently implemented in ASIC’s and GPU’s, giving attackers a speed advantage if you are using a CPU to perform the hashes, e.g. what may take you 100ms to hash might take an attacker only 1ms. PBKDF2 is reaching EOL, if it isn’t already.

TL;DR: Not recommended

bcrypt #

bcrypt is based on top of the Blowfish algorithm. It attempts to address the ASIC and GPU issue by using more memory than PBKDF2. It does 2^N blowfish key expansions which are memory intensive. Currently recommended is a cost of at least N=13. bcrypt is a strong password algorithm, though there are stronger options that are more future proof. Most notably, bcrypt, while using more memory, still has a constant upper bound on memory. Thus it will eventually be outdated as GPU’s and ASIC’s are improved with more memory.

TL;DR: Okay to use if you are currently using it, but plan an upgrade path.

scrypt #

scrypt was built to address the constant bound memory issue of bcrypt by making the memory usage configurable. It performs 2^N block mixing operations, where the block size is configurable. scrypt also has a parallelization factor to use more threads, however in practice this is not used, opting instead to increase the work factor, N. Currently, a work factor of N=16, block size b=8, and parallelization factor p=1 are recommended at the minimum. scrypt can be used for the foreseeable future, at least until the next algorithm, Argon2 has had enough time to be deemed thoroughly secure.

TL;DR: Recommended to use, but have an upgrade path available.

Argon2 #

Argon2 has several variants, Argon2i, Argon2d, and Argon2id. Like scrypt, it has options available for tuning memory, parallelism, and iterations. The different variants of Argon2 are specialized for different scenarios, but Argon2id is recommended for most use cases. It is a hybrid mode of Argon2i and Argon2d to allow it to resist both side-channel attacks and GPU attacks. Argon2 is the winner of the Password Hashing Competition, however its original published version and latest version are vulnerable to some flaws in some variants. Argon2i is vulnerable to a faster polynomial time algorithm if using 10 or fewer memory passes. Argon2d is not resistant to side-channel attacks, since it accesses memory on a password dependent order. Argon2id is not known to be vulnerable yet, but allow time for the algorithm to mature before using it.

TL;DR: Do not use just yet, but plan an upgrade to Argon2 once the algorithm matures a bit more.

Storing a password #

The actual format of storing a password, while not as important to security, is important to the authentication system as a whole because it affects how easy it is to maintain its implementation. Password hashes normally have varying amounts of configuration as seen in:

package scrypt
func Key(password, salt []byte, N, r, p, keyLen int) ([]byte, error)
package bcrypt
func GenerateFromPassword(password []byte, cost int) ([]byte, error)

It may be tempting to store this configuration in some configuration file, which can be read whenever a new user is created or authenticating a user’s password. However, this becomes increasingly more difficult to maintain over the course of an auth system’s lifetime. Computing hardware will improve, forcing you to increase the computation cost of the password hash for newly created passwords. A password hash may, itself, be compromised because a new ASIC has been developed, forcing you to use an entirely different password hashing function altogether. In these scenarios, one needs to still maintain all past configurations in order to ensure that current user passwords and their hashes are still valid. This would require storing, perhaps, some password configuration version as a column in the database, which corresponds to the correct configuration of the password hash. I think this adds too much complexity, however.

To solve this configuration issue, I developed a library for Governor, hunter2 , but its actual implementation is quite simple. Hunter2 exports a Hasher interface as follows:

package hunter2

type (
  Hasher interface {
    ID() string
    Hash(key string) (string, error)
    Verify(key string, hash string) (bool, error)

Any hash may fulfill this simplified interface, which just takes in simple strings as input and outputs hashes as strings. One of these implemented hashes is scrypt:

func (h *ScryptHasher) exec(key string, salt []byte, hashLength int, c ScryptConfig) ([]byte, error) {
  return scrypt.Key([]byte(key), salt, c.workFactor, c.memBlocksize, c.parallelFactor, hashLength)

func (h *ScryptHasher) Hash(key string) (string, error) {
  salt := make([]byte, h.saltlen)
  if _, err := rand.Read(salt); err != nil {
    return "", err
  hash, err := h.exec(key, salt, h.hashlen, h.config)
  if err != nil {
    return "", err

  b := strings.Builder{}
  return b.String(), nil

As one can see, ScryptHasher.Hash will first generate a random salt of the configured length. Then, it uses scrypt to generate a hash with the combined key and salt using the specified configuration. Finally, it writes its own hashid, configuration options, salt, and hash to a string, delimited by $ and returns it. This allows verifying a password to be as simple as examining the hash output itself, reading which hasher produced the hash, using its configuration options and salt, and checking to see if the hashes are equivalent. No external configuration is necessary. Here is the implementation of hunter2.Verifier:

package hunter2

type (
  Verifier struct {
    hashers map[string]Hasher

func (v *Verifier) RegisterHash(hasher Hasher) {
  v.hashers[hasher.ID()] = hasher

func (v *Verifier) Verify(key string, hash string) (bool, error) {
  b := strings.SplitN(strings.TrimLeft(hash, "$"), "$", 2)
  hasher, ok := v.hashers[b[0]]
  if !ok {
    return false, errors.New("Hash " + b[0] + " is not registered")
  return hasher.Verify(key, hash)

The Verifier splits the hash by the first $ delimiter, and checks if the hash id matches any hasher that it knows about. Then it calls on the hasher to verify the hash. In the case of scrypt, the hash parameters, salt, and hash are extracted. Then the key is hashed with the hash parameters and salt and compared against the hash, as seen below.

func (c *ScryptConfig) decodeParams(params string) error {
  p := strings.Split(params, ",")
  if len(p) != 3 {
    return errors.New("Invalid number of params")
  wf, err := strconv.Atoi(p[0])
  if err != nil {
    return errors.New("Invalid work factor")
  mb, err := strconv.Atoi(p[1])
  if err != nil {
    return errors.New("Invalid mem blocksize")
  pf, err := strconv.Atoi(p[2])
  if err != nil {
    return errors.New("Invalid parallel factor")
  c.workFactor = wf
  c.memBlocksize = mb
  c.parallelFactor = pf
  return nil

func (h *ScryptHasher) Verify(key string, hash string) (bool, error) {
  b := strings.Split(strings.TrimLeft(hash, "$"), "$")
  if len(b) != 4 || b[0] != h.hashid {
    return false, errors.New("Invalid scrypt hash format")

  config := ScryptConfig{}
  if err := config.decodeParams(b[1]); err != nil {
    return false, err
  salt, err := base64.RawURLEncoding.DecodeString(b[2])
  if err != nil {
    return false, err
  hashval, err := base64.RawURLEncoding.DecodeString(b[3])
  if err != nil {
    return false, err
  res, err := h.exec(key, salt, len(hashval), config)
  if err != nil {
    return false, err
  return bytes.Equal(res, hashval), nil

This strategy of storing password hash configuration in the output of the hash came from the well written bcrypt paper8. This greatly reduces complexity in updating configuration as password hash standards increase, and has helped me simplify much of Governor’s auth code.

And thus ends Part 2.

  1. password length and diceware  ↩︎

  2. Facebook plaintext passwords  ↩︎

  3. Birthday problem  ↩︎

  4. NIST AES recommendations  ↩︎

  5. Sun lifetime  ↩︎

  6. Summit press release  ↩︎

  7. XKCD: password strength  ↩︎

  8. bcrypt paper  ↩︎

auth web

Kevin Wang

Web dev and engineer. Experiences decision fatigue daily.