Authentication – Part III Passwords

Passwords have been the main tool for verifying identity and granting access to computer resources.In general, as FIPS 112 defines it, a password is a sequence of characters that can be used for several authentication purposes.

There are two security problems with a password; 1) somebody other than the legitimate user can guess it; or 2) it can be intercepted (sniffed) during transmission by a third party. Over the years, many different kinds of password generation methods and password protection protocols were designed to address  hese two weaknesses.

Password Strength

The security (strength) of a password is determined by its Shannon entropy , which is a measure of the difficulty in guessing the password. This entropy is measured in Shannon bits. For example, a random 10-letter English text would have an estimated entropy of around 15 Shannon bits, meaning that on average we might have to try \frac{1}{2}(2^{15}) = 2^{14} =16384 possibilities to guess it. In practice, the number of attempts needed would be considerably less because of side information available and redundancy (patterns and lack of randomness).  Since most human users cannot remember long random strings, a major weakness of passwords is that the entropy is usually too small for security. Even if the user can construct long passwords using an algorithm or a fix rule, the same rule may be know or guess by hackers. 

It is well-known to hackers that users commonly select passwords that include variations of the user name, make of the car they drive, name of some family member, etc.  Social engineering is one of the most powerful tools being used by hackers.

Because of limitations in the underlying infrastructure, some authentication systems (notably banks) limit the number of characters and the alphabet from which the characters can be chosen. These kind of limitations are susceptible to dictionary-type attacks. In a dictionary  or brute force attack, the hacker will attempt to gain access using words from a list or dictionary. If the actual password is in the list, it can be obtained (in average)  when about half of the total number of possibilities have been tried. Even with systems that limit the number of trials for a user this is a potential security risk, because the hacker has good chances at gaining access by randomly trying names and passwords until a valid combination is found.

It is commonly accepted that with current tools, up to 30% of the passwords in a system can be recovered within hours. Moreover it is predicted that even random (perfect) passwords of 8 characters will be routinely cracked with technology available to most users by the year 2016.

There are many documents that give rules and policies for good password selection such as NIST Special Publication 800-63 and SANS security Project.

CrypTool  (ver 1.4)  has a very good tool to check the strength of a password against several criteria such as the amount of entropy and the resistance to dictionary attacks.

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3 Responses to Authentication – Part III Passwords

  1. Pingback: Authentication - Part IV Password Protocols « CryptoBlog - Data Security and Information Theory

  2. Pingback: One Password fits all « CryptoBlog - Data Security and Information Theory

  3. Pingback: Hackers expose slew of Hotmail acount passwords « CryptoBlog – Data Security and Information Theory

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