Authentication – Part IV Password Protocols

To be useful, passwords need to be transmitted or negotiated between the server and the client.

Transmission of the password in the clear is subjected to eavesdropping and therefore very insecure. The password storage on the servers side must also be protected from the possibility that the file falls on the wrong hands, compromising the security of the system.

There are several constraints to the design of password protections protocols, one of the most important being the limited amount of entropy that user memorized passwords necessarily have. Computation time is another big constraint. Even small delays in the response time can make the difference between a system the user is happy to interact with, and a system in which security features will be disabled for the sake of interactivity.

The key features of a password protection protocol are described below:

  1. The transmission and storage of passwords should be non plain-text equivalent: This means, the protocol should be such that even if an attacker obtains the database containing the password or eavesdrop the exchange between client and server, this will not compromise the security of the exchange.
  2. The protocol must be resistant to replay attack: That is, if an eavesdropper successfully record a login session, the information can not be used to compromise a future (or past) exchange between the Client and the server.
  3. The protocol must be resistant to the Denning-Sacco attack: In this attack, by capturing the session key (not the raw password) the eavesdropper has enough information to successfully mount a brute force attack or at least to successfully impersonate the user.
  4. The protocol must be resistant to active attacks:In these situations the protocol leaks enough information that allows the attacker to impersonate the server to the client, make a guess of the correct password and then, by faking a failure, obtain confirmation from the client when the guessed password is correct.
  5. Protocols that work on the base of zero-knowledge proof of password possession are preferable: Zero-knowledge means that the server does not need to know the password to prove that the client knows the password. Passwords are never stored on the server therefore they cannot be stolen. 

Some protocols encrypt the exchange of information to avoid the plain-text equivalence. Others used a form of asymmetric key exchange (a la Diffie-Helmann) that are generated based on the password but do not leak any information about it.

The following is a list of the some of the commonly used password schemes, classified by its strength:

(adapted from SRP competitive analysis)

Weak (not to be used)

  • Clear-text passwords (such as unsecured telnet, rlogin, etc.)
  • Encoded passwords (HTTP Basic Authentication)
  • Classic challenge-response protocols (HTTP Digest Authentication, Windows NTLM Authentication, APOP, CRAM, CHAP, etc.)
  • One-Time Password schemes based on a human memorable (low entropy) secret (S/Key, OPIE)
  • Kerberos V4


Pseudo-Strong (they have known vulnerabilities in some implementations)


  • Secure Remote Password (SRP) – Developed in 1997 by Wu, is a strong password authentication protocol now widespread among Open Source and commercial products. SRP does not expose passwords to either passive or active network intruders, and it stores passwords as a “non-plaintext-equivalent” one-way hash on the server. SRP is available as part of standard Telnet and FTP implementations, and is being rapidly incorporated into Internet protocols that require strong password authentication.
  • Encrypted Key Exchange(EKE) – Developed by Bellovin & Merritt in 1992 is one of the earliest examples of secure password protocols.
  • Strong Password Exponential Key Exchange (SPEKE) developed by David Jablon . It is licensed by Entrust for their TruePass product.
  • Diffie-Helmann Encrypted Key Exchange (DH-EKE)
  • AMP
  • AuthA
  • OKE
  • Variations of all of the above.


See also: Authentication – Part I, Part II and Part III.


One Response to Authentication – Part IV Password Protocols

  1. Lilian says:

    Awesome Website, Maintain the excellent work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: