Validation and Storing authentication data

Validation


The key subject of this section is the authentication data storage, as more often than desirable, user account databases are leaked on the Internet. Of course that this is not guaranteed to happen, but in the case of such an event, collateral damages can be avoided if authentication data, especially passwords, are stored properly.

First, let's make it clear that "all authentication controls should fail securely". You're recommended to read all other Authentication and Password Management sections as they cover recommendations about reporting back wrong authentication data and how to handle logging.

One other preliminary recommendation: for sequential authentication implementations (like Google does nowadays), validation should happen only on the completion of all data input, on a trusted system (e.g. the server).

Storing password securely: the theory

Now let's talk about storing passwords.

You don't really need to store passwords as they are provided by the users (plaintext) but you'll need to validate on each authentication whether users are providing the same token.

So, for security reasons, what you need is a "one way" function H so that for every password p1 and p2, p1 is different from p2, H(p1) is also different from H(p2)1.

Does this sound, or look, like Math? Pay attention to this last requirement: H should be such a function that there's no function H⁻¹ so that H⁻¹(H(p1)) is equal to p1. This means that there's no way back to the original p1, unless you try all possible values of p.

If H is one-way only, what's the real problem about account leakage?

Well, if you know all possible passwords, you can pre-compute their hashes and then run a rainbow table attack.

Certainly you were already told that passwords are hard to manage from user's point of view, and that users are not only able to re-use passwords but they also tend to use something easy to remember, which makes the universe really small.

How can we avoid this?

The point is: if two different users provide the same password p1 we should store a different hashed value. It may sound impossible but the answer is salt: a pseudo-random unique per user password value which is appended to p1 so that the resulting hash is computed as follows: H(p1 + salt).

So each entry on passwords store should keep the resulting hash and the salt itself in plaintext: salt is not required to remain private.

Last recommendations.

The following code-sample shows a basic example of how this works:

package main

import (
    "crypto/rand"
    "crypto/sha256"
    "database/sql"
    "context"
    "fmt"
)

const saltSize = 32

func main() {
    ctx := context.Background()
    email := []byte("john.doe@somedomain.com")
    password := []byte("47;u5:B(95m72;Xq")

    // create random word
    salt := make([]byte, saltSize)
    _, err := rand.Read(salt)
    if err != nil {
        panic(err)
    }

    // let's create SHA256(password+salt)
    hash := sha256.New()
    hash.Write(password)
    hash.Write(salt)

    // this is here just for demo purposes
    //
    // fmt.Printf("email   : %s\n", string(email))
    // fmt.Printf("password: %s\n", string(password))
    // fmt.Printf("salt    : %x\n", salt)
    // fmt.Printf("hash    : %x\n", hash.Sum(nil))

    // you're supposed to have a database connection
    stmt, err := db.PrepareContext(ctx, "INSERT INTO accounts SET hash=?, salt=?, email=?")
    if err != nil {
        panic(err)
    }
    result, err := stmt.ExecContext(ctx, email, h, salt)
    if err != nil {
        panic(err)
    }

}

However, this approach has several flaws and should not be used. It is given here only to illustrate the theory with a practical example. The next section explains how to correctly salt passwords in real life.

Storing password securely: the practice

One of the most important adage in cryptography is: never roll your own crypto. By doing so, one can put at risk the entire application. It is a sensitive and complex topic. Hopefully, cryptography provides tools and standards reviewed and approved by experts. It is therefore important to use them instead of trying to re-invent the wheel.

In the case of password storage, the hashing algorithms recommended by OWASP are bcrypt, PDKDF2, Argon2 and scrypt. Those take care of hashing and salting passwords in a robust way. Go authors provide an extended package for cryptography, that is not part of the standard library. It provides robust implementations for most of the aforementioned algorithms. It can be downloaded using go get:

go get golang.org/x/crypto

The following example shows how to use bcrypt, which should be good enough for most of the situations. The advantage of bcrypt is that it is simpler to use and is therefore less error-prone.

package main

import (
    "database/sql"
    "context"
    "fmt"

    "golang.org/x/crypto/bcrypt"
)

func main() {
    ctx := context.Background()
    email := []byte("john.doe@somedomain.com")
    password := []byte("47;u5:B(95m72;Xq")

    // Hash the password with bcrypt
    hashedPassword, err := bcrypt.GenerateFromPassword(password, bcrypt.DefaultCost)
    if err != nil {
        panic(err)
    }

    // this is here just for demo purposes
    //
    // fmt.Printf("email          : %s\n", string(email))
    // fmt.Printf("password       : %s\n", string(password))
    // fmt.Printf("hashed password: %x\n", hashedPassword)

    // you're supposed to have a database connection
    stmt, err := db.PrepareContext(ctx, "INSERT INTO accounts SET hash=?, email=?")
    if err != nil {
        panic(err)
    }
    result, err := stmt.ExecContext(ctx, hashedPassword, email)
    if err != nil {
        panic(err)
    }
}

Bcrypt also provides a simple and secure way to compare a plaintext password with an already hashed password:

 ctx := context.Background()

 // credentials to validate
 email := []byte("john.doe@somedomain.com")
 password := []byte("47;u5:B(95m72;Xq")

// fetch the hashed password corresponding to the provided email
record := db.QueryRowContext(ctx, "SELECT hash FROM accounts WHERE email = ? LIMIT 1", email)

var expectedPassword string
if err := record.Scan(&expectedPassword); err != nil {
    // user does not exist

    // this should be logged (see Error Handling and Logging) but execution
    // should continue
}

if bcrypt.CompareHashAndPassword(password, []byte(expectedPassword)) != nil {
    // passwords do not match

    // passwords mismatch should be logged (see Error Handling and Logging)
    // error should be returned so that a GENERIC message "Sign-in attempt has
    // failed, please check your credentials" can be shown to the user.
}
1. Hashing functions are the subject of Collisions but recommended hashing functions have a really low collisions probability

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