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Web Application Software Development

Prerequisites: To sign requests with a shared secret, you will have to force your users to enable JavaScript. This may alienate some users, and ultimately I’m not sure it’s worth the effort just to avoid purchasing an SSL cert. But maybe for some open source apps that have heavy JavaScript dependencies anyway, this might be a good fit since you can’t control whether your users will get a cert..
Strengths: A request signed with a Shared Secret prevents session hijacking by passive attackers (e.g. Firesheep)
Weaknesses: All Non-SSL security is vulnerable to MitM attacks. Also, if you use a password hash as the Shared Secret, it can potentially be compromised at registration and during password changes.

As discussed in a previous post, Why you MUST use SSL, without SSL, there is no way to prevent a Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack from bypassing any security measures you take. However, by using a Shared Secret to sign your requests, you can make the task more difficult for an MitM as well as reduce the risk of a passive attacker getting the password, hijacking the session, or running a replay attack. A Shared Secret is something that only the server and client know, which implies that you never send it over the wire in either direction. This can be a bit problematic. How can both sides know a shared secret without ever communicating that secret across the web?

Well, ideally, if we truly want the communication to be a shared secret, we would need to communicate it to the user via an SMS message or an e-mail. By using an alternate method, you reduce the risk of interception by any MitM or passive attacker. An SMS would probably be safest, as if their e-mail is transmitted over HTTP or unsecured POP3, then an MitM would possibly be able to see that communication as well. But, at the very least, by transmitting through another method of communication, you greatly reduce the risk of the shared secret getting intercepted in conjunction with an MitM or Side-Jacking attempt.

A slightly less secure Shared Secret is the user’s password. The reason it is less secure is because it does have to be transmitted at least once: during registration and also anytime the user changes his or her password. Anyone listening at that point in time will know the Shared Secret, and your security can be bypassed. However, this is still significantly more secure than if you don’t use a Shared Secret. The advantage to your users in this case, versus an SMS message, is that they don’t have to jump through any additional hoops beyond what they are already used to. However, if we do this, we have to make sure that the password Shared Secret is not communicated during the login…we want to make sure that it is ONLY sent during the initial registration or password change to reduce the frequency of communicating the shared secret.

How to Login Without Forfeiting the Shared Secret

Assuming that we dutifully hashed our password with a salt, the server doesn’t actually know the password, so our Shared Secret is actually the hash of salt+password rather than the password itself. As our Shared Secret, it is important that we never send the hash of salt+password to the server or vice-versa. So, when the user logs in, we must first send them TWO salts. The first passwordSalt the client will use to generate the shared secret, and the second oneTimeSalt will be used to communicate the shared secret to the server for the login.

var sharedSecret = hash( passwordSalt + password ),
    loginHash    = hash( oneTimeSalt + sharedSecret )
$.post(loginPath, {"email":email,"password":loginHash}, callback);

The server then validates in a method something like this:

isValidPassword( hashFromClient ) {
    return hash_equals(
        hash( oneTimeSalt + storedPasswordHash ),
    ); //slow, time-constant equality check

If the above method is successful, then we destroy the one-time salt and put a new one in its place for the next use. We then send the client a session token that it is able to use for the rest of its session to remain logged in. However, if the session token is all we use for validating the user on subsequent requests, then any novice MitM, or person using Firesheep, will be able to hijack the session. So, we need to use our shared secret to “sign” each request in a way that the server can ensure the data is actually from someone that knows the shared secret and hasn’t been modified.

Fortunately, this is actually quite simple. We already have our shared secret, the first hash. So, we can use the first hash to sign each request something like the following:

var signature = hash( sharedSecret + sessionToken + requestMethod + requestUrl + requestBody );

We append this signature to our request, and when the server receives the request, it can find the Shared Secret associated with that session token and then run the same hash. If the two hashes are equal, then the server can assume that the request comes from someone who knows the Shared Secret. So, about the only thing an attacker can do without knowing the Shared Secret is replay the exact same request multiple times. However, this is still potentially problematic. Imagine an attacker adding a million rows to your database by replaying the same POST request a million times…it could get ugly. So, next on the list is to look at Security Without SSL, How to Prevent Replay Attacks.

February 8th, 2015

Posted In: Security

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If you store your users’ passwords in plain text, life is easy for you, and its equally easy for someone to steal them. If someone manages to login to your database; if someone makes a successful SQL-injection attack; if the next developer on the project, or that contractor you hired for a week to optimize the database, are less trustworthy than you…any of these scenarios could compromise every one of your users’ accounts. And maybe users can’t hurt anything on your site, but unfortunately, people often use the same password for your site that they use for their e-mail account, etc. So, if someone gains access to your users’ usernames and passwords, they can potentially access those users’ e-mail, bank accounts, amazon accounts, facebook accounts, etc. So, just don’t do it. This is the first and most sacred rule in handling your users’ passwords. You should treat passwords as carefully as you would credit card details and social security numbers. I don’t care what your reason is for storing passwords in plain text…your reason is not worth the risk to your users, and there is always another way to do what you are trying to do. There is NO valid reason to store a password in plain text.

Additionally, you should ALWAYS store the password using a ONE-WAY hash, and that hash must be salted as pointed out in Why You MUST Salt Your Hashes. A one-way hash is NOT “encryption”. A password that is encrypted can also be decrypted. If you store a password using the very secure AES-512 encryption with a key that is stored carefully in your source code in a protected folder that can’t even be accessed from the web at all…it may seem like the passwords are safe, but they aren’t. Ask yourself, would YOU, the developer, be able to decrypt the passwords? If YOU can do it, then so can someone else. Remember, the next developer, or that contractor, may not be as honest as you are. My goal, and your goal, should be to make it impossible for anyone, including yourself, from being able to access the passwords.

I can hear the comments rolling in before I’ve even posted this about how you NEED to have the password encrypted so you can decrypt it, because you have to use the password to login to some other legacy system from your system, and that other system requires the password. Well, okay, if you don’t control another system, and that system was designed poorly, then maybe–just maybe–there is a valid reason…but that’s about the only reason I can think of. And there is still no excuse to store it in plain text.

Which Hashing Algorithm to Use?

Now, there is a lot of information out there saying to not use MD5 and use SHA256 instead. This is only mediocre advice. SHA256 is definitely safer than MD5. However, SHA256 is still a “fast” algorithm. While my quick tests show that it would take my computer hundreds of years to crack an 8 character password through random brute-force methods, I have heard reports of a custom 25 GPU system that is able to do 22 billion hashes per second with SHA256, which means an 8 character password could be brute-forced in a few hours. So, it is important to use a “slow” hashing algorithm.

Based on some quick, incomplete research it appears that the most common or talked about algorithms that do “slow” hashing are:

Among these, it seems that bcrypt is the most trusted, while scrypt might have some good future promise but doesn’t have as much software support from what I could find. These algorithms work by hashing the password thousands of times with configuration options to increase the number of rounds as computer processing speeds up. Forcing the password to be hashed thousands of times to get the end-result will only take a couple-hundred milliseconds when the user types in a valid password, so it’s barely noticeable to the user. However, to the person trying to brute-force the password, it becomes expensive in terms of time and financial cost of processing power.

So, pick a slow hashing algorithm and hash your passwords with a salt. It’s the only way to truly protect your users’ information to the best of your ability. Your users will never know how grateful they really are, but you’ll also never have to tell them about a compromised password if your database table gets leaked.

February 6th, 2015

Posted In: Security

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In a another post, Why You MUST Hash Your User’s Passwords, I talked about the importance of hashing rather than encrypting (or worse storing in plain text) your user’s passwords. I also discussed why it is important to use a hashing algorithm designed to be “slow” such as bcrypt, scrypt, PBKDF2, and SHA512crypt. However, even if you use the slowest possible hashing algorithm ever known to man, if you don’t, also, salt the passwords, they will be much more easily compromised.

Unfortunately, your users are DUMB. They are going to use passwords like “molly77″. As a quick example, a SHA256 hash is considered fairly secure. To brute-force a SHA256 password would take hours even for the best machines. However, a SHA256 hash of a DUMB password is NOT secure at all. E.g. here’s the SHA256 hash of “molly77″:


Take that hash, and go to this link:, paste it into the textbox, submit it, and you’ll find that it very quickly finds the result from a Rainbow Table lookup. A Rainbow Table is a list of hashes and their corresponding passwords, and a rainbow table can be easily generated when either you don’t salt your password or you use the same salt for every password. Thus, it is important that you create a random salt for each password whenever the user registers or updates their password. Salting is extremely easy, all you do is prepend or append the password with a string, e.g. our molly77 password becomes something like:


When we hash this new password string, it becomes:


And when we lookup this hash in the link I provided above, the rainbow table doesn’t work. It’s so easy that there is no valid reason not to do it. The only additional work is storing the salt in the user row alongside the hashed password so that when the user logs in with the right password, we can produce the same hash. The method for doing this is something like this:

isValidPassword( submittedPassword ) {
    // areHashesEqual needs to be a "length constant" comparison method
    // as using "==" is vulnerable to timing attacks
    return areHashesEqual(hashMethod(submittedPassword + salt), hashedPassword);

Randomly salting your passwords makes rainbow tables useless and forces a would-be attacker to use brute-force methods if they want to crack your users’ passwords. If you’ve, additionally, used a slow hash like PBKDF2, bcrypt, etc., then brute-force methods become much more expensive, and it becomes much less likely that an attacker will bother with the passwords even if they happen to get a dump of your database table.


  • Use a well-supported PBKDF2, BCrypt, or SCrypt library that takes care of randomly generating the salt for you and allows you to increase the rounds progressively.
  • Use said library’s “length-constant” method to compare the stored hash with the password submitted by the user.

Second Best

  • Use a “slow”hashing algorithm
  • Generate a sufficiently long salt. A rainbow table can still be generated if your salt has too few possible combinations. The PBKDF2 recommendation is a minimum of 8 bytes.
  • At the bottom of this page, I’ve posted a PHP example for using the crypt method correctly before PHP 5.5 when password_hash() and hash_equals() become available.


  • Try to improve the hashing by coming up with some super-secret way to salt your passwords. It’s a waste of time. You should assume that if the user gets a data dump, they also have your source code, in which case you’ve done nothing except add more work for no additional security.
namespace Modules\Authentication\Helpers {
    class BCrypt {
        public static function hash( $password, $cost=12 ) {
            $base64 = base64_encode(openssl_random_pseudo_bytes(17));
            $salt = str_replace('+','.',substr($base64,0,22));
            $cost = str_pad($cost,2,'0',STR_PAD_LEFT);
            $algo = version_compare(phpversion(),'5.3.7') >= 0 ? '2y' : '2a';
            $prefix = "\${$algo}\${$cost}\${$salt}";

            return crypt($password, $prefix);
        public static function isValidPassword( $password, $storedHash ) {
            $newHash = crypt( $password, $storedHash );
            return self::areHashesEqual($newHash,$storedHash);
        private static function areHashesEqual( $hash1, $hash2 ) {
            $length1 = strlen($hash1);
            $length2 = strlen($hash2);
            $diff = $length1 ^ $length2;
            for($i = 0; $i < $length1 && $i < $length2; $i++) {
                $diff |= ord($hash1[$i]) ^ ord($hash2[$i]);
            return $diff === 0;

February 5th, 2015

Posted In: Security

Tags: , ,

One Comment