4.3 How Unix Implements Passwords
This section describes how passwords are implemented inside the Unix
operating system for both locally administered and network-based
4.3.1 The /etc/passwd File
Traditionally, Unix uses the
/etc/passwd file to keep track of every user on
the system. The /etc/passwd file contains the
username, real name, identification information, and basic account
information for each user. Each line in the file contains a database
record; the record fields are separated by a colon (:).
You can use the cat command to display your
system's /etc/passwd file. Here
are a few sample lines from a typical file:
The first three accounts, root,
daemon, and uucp, are
system accounts, while rachel and
arlin are accounts for individual users.
The individual fields of the /etc/passwd file
have fairly straightforward meanings. Table 4-1
explains a sample line from the file shown above.
Table 4-1. Example /etc/passwd fields
Holding place for the user's
Traditionally, this field actually stored the user's
encrypted password. Modern Unix systems store encrypted passwords in
a separate file (the shadow password file)
that can be accessed only by privileged users.
User's user identification number (UID).
User's group identification number (GID).
User's full name (also known as the GECOS or GCOS
User's home directory.
Passwords were traditionally stored in the
/etc/passwd file in an encrypted format (hence
the file's name). However, because of advances in
processor speed, encrypted passwords are now almost universally
stored in separate shadow password
files, which are described later.
The meanings of the UID and GID fields are described in Chapter 5.
4.3.2 The Unix Encrypted Password System
requests your password, it needs some way of determining that the
password you type is the correct one. Many early computer systems
(and quite a few still around today!) kept the passwords for all of
their accounts plainly visible in a so-called
"password file" that contained
exactly that—passwords. Under normal circumstances, the system
protected the passwords so that they could be accessed only by
privileged users and operating system utilities. But through
accident, programming error, or deliberate act, the contents of the
password file could occasionally become available to unprivileged
users. This scenario is illustrated in the following remembrance:
Perhaps the most memorable such occasion occurred in the early 1960s
when a system administrator on the CTSS system at MIT was editing the
password file and another system administrator was editing the daily
message that is printed on everyone's terminal on
login. Due to a software design error, the temporary editor files of
the two users were interchanged and thus, for a time, the password
file was printed on every terminal when it was logged in.
—Robert Morris and Ken Thompson, "Password Security: A Case
History" Communications of the ACM, November
The real danger posed by such systems, explained
Morris and Thompson, is not that software problems might someday
cause a recurrence of this event, but that people can make copies of
the password file and purloin them without the knowledge of the
system administrator. For example, if the password file is saved on
backup tapes, then those backups must be kept in a physically secure
place. If a backup tape is stolen, then
everybody's password needs to
Unix avoids this problem by not keeping
actual passwords anywhere on the system. Instead, Unix stores a value
that is generated by using the password to encrypt a block of zero
bits with a one-way function called crypt(
); the result of the calculation was
traditionally stored in the
When you try to log in, the program
/bin/login does not decrypt the stored password.
Instead, /bin/login takes the password that you
typed, uses it to transform another block of zeros, and compares the
newly transformed block with the block stored in the
/etc/passwd file. If the two encrypted results
match, the system lets you in.
The security of this
approach rests upon the strength of the encryption algorithm and the
difficulty of guessing the user's password. To date,
the crypt ( ) algorithm and its successors have
proven highly resistant to attacks. Unfortunately, users have a habit
of picking easy-to-guess passwords, which creates the need for shadow
126.96.36.199 The traditional crypt ( ) algorithm
The algorithm that traditional crypt( ) uses is
based on the Data Encryption Standard
(DES) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
In normal operation, DES uses a 56-bit key (8 7-bit ASCII characters,
for instance) to encrypt blocks of original text, or
that are 64 bits in length. The resulting 64-bit blocks of encrypted
cannot easily be decrypted to the original cleartext without knowing
the original 56-bit key.
The Unix crypt( ) function takes the
user's password as the encryption key and uses it to
encrypt a 64-bit block of zeros. The resulting 64-bit block of
ciphertext is then encrypted again with the user's
password; the process is repeated a total of 25 times. The final 64
bits are unpacked into a string of 11 printable characters that are
stored in the shadow password file.
Don't confuse the crypt( )
algorithm with the
crypt encryption program. The
crypt program uses a different encryption system
from crypt( ) and is very easy to break. See
Chapter 7 for more details.
Although the source code to crypt( ) is readily
available, no technique has been discovered (or publicized) to
translate the encrypted password back into the original password.
Such reverse translation may not even be possible. As a result, the
only known way to defeat
password security is via a brute-force attack (see the next note), or
by a dictionary
attack. A dictionary attack is conducted by
choosing likely passwords—as from a dictionary—encrypting
them, and comparing the results with the value stored in
/etc/passwd. This approach to breaking a
cryptographic cipher is also called a key
or password cracking. It is made easier by the
fact that DE uses only the first eight characters of the password as
its key; dictionaries need only contain passwords of eight characters
Robert Morris and Ken Thompson
designed crypt( ) to make a key search
computationally expensive. The idea was to make a dictionary attack
take too long to be practical. At the time, software implementations
of DES were quite slow; iterating the encryption process 25 times
made the process of encrypting a single password 25 times slower
still. On the original PDP-11 processors upon which Unix was
designed, nearly a full second of computer time was required to
encrypt a single password. To eliminate the possibility of using DES
hardware encryption chips, which were a thousand times faster than
software running on a PDP-11, Morris and Thompson modified the DES
tables used by their software implementation, rendering the two
incompatible. The same modification also served to prevent a bad guy
from simply pre-encrypting an entire dictionary and storing it.
What was the modification? Morris and Thompson added a bit of
salt, as we'll describe in
the next section.
There is no published or known method to easily decrypt DES-encrypted
text without knowing the key. Of course,
"easily" has a different meaning
for cryptographers than for mere mortals. To decrypt something
encrypted with DES is computationally expensive; using the fastest
current, general-purpose computers might take hundreds of years.
However, computers have grown so much faster in the past 25 years
that it is now possible to test millions of passwords in a relatively
short amount of time.
188.8.131.52 Unix salt
As table salt adds zest to popcorn, the
salt that Morris and Thompson sprinkled into the DES algorithm added
a little more spice and variety. The DES salt is a 12-bit number,
between 0 and 4,095, which slightly changes the result of the DES
function. Each of the 4,096 different salts makes a password encrypt
a different way.
When you change your password, the /bin/passwd
program selects a salt based on the time of
day. The salt is converted into a two-character string and is stored
in the /etc/passwd file along with the encrypted
"password." In this manner, when you
type your password at login time, the same salt is used again. Unix
stores the salt as the first two characters of the encrypted
Table 4-2 shows how a few different words encrypt
with different salts.
Table 4-2. Passwords and salts
Notice that the last password, norahs, was
encrypted two different ways with two different salts. As a side
effect, the salt makes it possible for a user to have the same
password on a number of different computers and to keep this fact a
secret (usually), even from somebody who has access to the
/etc/passwd files on all of those computers; two
systems would not likely assign the same salt to the user, thus
ensuring that the encrypted password field is different.
the author of the Crack program (discussed in
Table 19-1), related an entertaining story to us
about the reuse of passwords in more than one place, which we
A student friend of Alec's (call him Bob) spent a
co-op year at a major computer company site. During his vacations and
on holidays, he'd come back to school and play
AberMUD (a network-based game) on Alec's computer.
One of Bob's responsibilities at the company
involved system management. The company was concerned about security,
so all passwords were random strings of letters with no sensible
pattern or order.
One day, Alec fed the AberMUD passwords into his development version
of the Crack program as a dictionary, because
they were stored on his machine as plaintext. He then ran this file
against his system user-password file, and found a few student
account passwords. He had the students change their passwords, and he
then forgot about the matter.
Some time later, Alec posted a revised version of the
Crack program and associated files to the
Usenet. They ended up in one of the Usenet sources newsgroups and
were distributed quite widely. Eventually, after a trip of thousands
of miles around the world, they came to Bob's
company. Bob, being a concerned administrator, decided to download
the files and check them against his company's
passwords. Imagine Bob's shock and horror when the
widely distributed Crack promptly churned out a
match for his randomly chosen, super-secret root
The moral of the story is that you should teach your users
never to use their account passwords for other
purposes—such as games or web sites. They never know when those
passwords might come back to haunt them! For developers, the moral is
that all programs—even games—should store passwords
encrypted with one-way hash functions.
In recent years the security provided by the salt has diminished
significantly. Having a salt means that the same password can encrypt
in 4,096 different ways. This makes it much harder for an attacker to
build a reverse dictionary for translated encrypted passwords back
into her unencrypted form: to build a reverse dictionary of 100,000
words, an attacker would need to have 409,600,000 entries. But with
8-character passwords and 13-character encrypted passwords,
409,600,000 entries fit in roughly 8 GBs of storage.
Another problem with the salt was an error in implementation: many
systems selected which salt to use based on the time of day, which
made some salts more likely than others.
184.108.40.206 crypt16( ), DES Extended, and Modular Crypt Format
Modern Unix systems have improved the security of the
crypt( ) function by changing the underlying
encryption algorithm. Instead of a modified DES, a variety of other
algorithms have been adopted, including Blowfish and MD5. The
advantage of these new algorithms is that more characters of the
password are significant, and there are many more possible values for
the salt; both of these changes significantly improve the strength of
the underlying encrypted password system. The disadvantage is that
the encrypted passwords on these systems will not be compatible with
the encrypted passwords on other systems.
Because of the widespread use of the original Unix password
encryption algorithm, Unix vendors have gone to great lengths to
ensure compatibility. Thus, the crypt( )
function called with a traditional salt will always use the original
DES-based algorithm. To use one of the newer algorithms you must use
either a different function call (some vendors use
bigcrypt( ) or crypt16( ))
or a different salt value. Consult your documentation to find out
what is appropriate for your system.
Extended format is a technique for increasing the number of DES
rounds and extending the salt from 212 to
224 possible values. This format has
limited use on modern Unix systems but is included on many to provide
The Modular Crypt Format (MCF)
specifies an extensible scheme for formatting encrypted passwords.
MCF is one of the most popular formats for encrypted passwords around
today. Here is an example of an MCF-encrypted password:
Dollar signs are used to delimit the MCF fields, as described in
Table 4-3. The modular crypt format
Specifies encryption algorithm to use
1 specifies MD5.2 specifies Blowfish.
Limited to 16 characters.
Does not include salt, unlike traditional Unix crypt(
220.127.116.11 The shadow password and master password files
Although changes to the encrypted
password system (as described in the previous section) have improved
the security of encrypted passwords, they have failed to
fundamentally address the weakness exploited by password crackers:
people pick passwords that are easy to guess. If an attacker can
obtain a copy of the password file, it is a simple matter to guess
passwords, perform the encryption transform, and compare against the
Ultimately, the best way to deal with the problem of poorly-chosen
passwords is to eliminate reusable passwords entirely by using
one-time passwords, some form of biometrics, or a token-based
authentication system. Because such systems can be awkward or
expensive, modern Unix systems have adopted a second approach called
shadow password files or master
As the name implies, a shadow password file is a secondary password
file that shadows the primary password file. On
Solaris and Linux systems, the shadow
password is usually stored in the file /etc/shadow and
contains the encrypted password and a password expiration date. The
/etc/shadow file is protected so that it can be
read only by the superuser. Thus, an attacker cannot obtain a copy to
use in verifying guesses of passwords.
Instead of a shadow password file,
FreeBSD uses a master password file. This
file, /etc/master.passwd, is
a complete password file that includes usernames, passwords, and
other account information. The /etc/passwd file
is identical to the /etc/master.passwd file,
except that all encrypted passwords have been changed to the letter
Mac OS X stores all account information in the NetInfo network-based
account management system. Mac OS X does this for all computers, even
for standalone computers that are never placed on a network. The
version of NetInfo that is supplied in Mac OS 10.0 and 10.1 does not
provide for shadow passwords, although the
/etc/master.passwd file is present and is used
4.3.3 One-Time Passwords
most effective way to minimize the danger of bad passwords is not to
use conventional passwords at all. Instead, your site can install
software and/or hardware to allow one-time
passwords. A one-time password is exactly that—a
password that is used only once.
There are two popular techniques for implementing one-time passwords:
- Hardware tokens
is the RSA SecureID card, which displays a new PIN or password for
each login. Some token-based systems display a different code every
minute. Other token-based systems look like little calculators. When
you attempt to log in you are presented with a challenge. You type
this challenge into your calculator, type in your personal
identification number, and then type the resulting number that is
displayed into the computer.
These list valid
passwords. Each password is crossed off the list after it is used.
S/Key is a popular codebook system.
One-time passwords can be implemented as a replacement for
conventional passwords or in addition to them. In a typical S/Key
environment, you enter the S/Key password instead of your standard
Unix password. For example:
Password: says rusk wag hut gwen loge
Last login: Wed Jul 5 08:11:33 from r2.nitroba.com
You have new mail.
All of these one-time password systems provide an astounding
improvement in security over the conventional system. Unfortunately,
because they require either the installation of special software or
the purchase of additional hardware, they are not as widespread at
this time in the Unix marketplace as they should be. However, many
major companies and government agencies have moved to using these
one-time methods. (See Table 19-1 for additional
4.3.4 Public Key Authentication
approach to solving the problem of passwords is to do away with them
entirely and use an alternative authentication system. One popular
authentication system that has been used is recent years is based on
public key cryptography (described in Chapter 7 ).
In a public key authentication system, each user generates a pair of
"keys"—two long numbers with
the interesting property that a message encoded with one of the keys
can be decoded only using the other key. The user keeps one of the
keys private on his local computer (and often protects its privacy by
encrypting the key itself with a password), and provides the other,
public key to the remote server. When the user wants to log into the
server, the server selects a random number, encodes it with the
user's public key, and sends it to the user. By
decrypting the random number using his private key and returning it
to the server (possibly re-encrypted with the
server's public key), the user proves that he is in
possession of the private key and is therefore authentic. In a
similar fashion, the server can authenticate itself to the user, so
that the user is sure that he's logging into the
Public key authentication systems have two fundamental problems. The
first problem is the management of private keys. Private keys must be
kept secure at all costs. Typically, private keys are encrypted with
a passphrase to protect them, but all of the caveats about choosing a
good password (and not transmitting it where others can eavesdrop)
The second problem is the certification of public keys. If an
attacker can substitute his public key for someone
else's (or for that of a server to which you wish to
connect) all your communication will be visible to the attacker. One
solution to this problem is to use a secure channel to exchange
public keys. With the Secure Shell (ssh), the
public key is merely copied to the remote system (after logging in
with a password or another non-public key method) and put into a file
in the user's home directory called
A more sophisticated technique for distributing public keys involves
the creation of a public key
infrastructure (PKI). A group of users and system administrators
could all certify their keys to one another in person, or each could
have his own key certified by a common person or organization that
everyone trusts to verify the identities associated with the keys.
SSL, the Secure Socket Layer, provides transparent support for PKI.