Securely Storing Passwords

In this article I want to talk about the storage of passwords in your systems. Passwords are still the most common way of being able to authenticate a user, but it is very easy to put yourself in a situation where your system is not secure and susceptible to attacks. In this article I want to discuss ways in which you shouldn’t store passwords, and talk about how you can safely store passwords and protect yourself where you have been a victim of data theft.

Securely Storing Passwords
Securely Storing Passwords

Storing Passwords in the Clear

Easy of Implementation : EASY


When you are developing a system that needs to authenticate a user, the biggest mistake you can make is storing passwords as clear text in your database. You may as well not bother having security as you can’t offer any kind of privacy to your users. This may seem like common sense, but there are still plenty of sites that do this. A user’s password should be secret and only known by the person who it belongs too.

Privacy and Surveillance

2013 has been an interesting year for whistle blowing about surveillance from the American and British governments. Earlier in the year Edward Snowden, a former NSA technologist, decided to put his own life on the line and leak a huge cache of documents about the NSA’s surveillance capabilities against its own people in the USA. This goes against the 4th amendment in the constitution that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.

Privacy and Surveillance
Privacy and Surveillance

The notion of surveillance is a complex topic. There are a lot of bad people out there that want to cause America, Britain, and Europe a lot of harm, and we need a way to keep tabs on these people. In this case I believe surveillance is justified. There will always be threats from domestic threats which also need to be monitored. The question here though is, have our governments crossed the line with the mass data collection that they are doing. In my opinion yes they have, but now this is all starting to get out in the open, maybe something will start to be done about it, hopefully. This all really started when George Bush gave the NSA the remit to collect this data after the September 11th attacks against the USA.

Introduction to AES Encryption

I was going to write a fairly lengthy post about the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption and how it works, but when doing my research I found an excellent video presentation series by Patrick Townsend of Townsend Security and thought I would share this excellent find with you.

I recently wrote a short series on using encryption algorithms in .NET and one of the posts talked about AES, as-well as RSA, Random Number Generation and Hashing and combining multiple cryptographic protocols to create hybrid encryption algorithms.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)  Series by Patrick Townsend of Townsend Security
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) Series by Patrick Townsend of Townsend Security

The series starts of by talking about what encryption is and then goes on about why you should use the AES encryption algorithm, how you should approach key management, and digging into more advanced detail on how the algorithm works including the different modes of encryption.

Cryptography in .NET : Hybrid Encryption Protocols

This is the 4th and final article in a series on cryptography with .NET. So far in this series we have looked at some of the built in cryptographic primitives build into .NET including, Symmetric Encryption with AES, Asymmetric encryption using RSA, Cryptographic random number generation and hashing.

Cryptography in .NET : Hybrid Encryption Protocols
Cryptography in .NET : Hybrid Encryption Protocols

What I want to do in this final part is talk about using these different cryptographic primitives to do what is called Hybrid Encryption.

What is Hybrid Encryption?

So, what is hybrid encryption? Let’s start off with Wikipedia’s definition.

In cryptography, public-key cryptosystems are convenient in that they do not require the sender and receiver to share a common secret in order to communicate securely (among other useful properties). However, they often rely on complicated mathematical computations and are thus generally much more inefficient than comparable symmetric-key cryptosystems. In many applications, the high cost of encrypting long messages in a public-key cryptosystem can be prohibitive. A hybrid cryptosystem is one which combines the convenience of a public-key cryptosystem with the efficiency of a symmetric-key cryptosystem.

A hybrid cryptosystem can be constructed using any two separate cryptosystems:

  • a key encapsulation scheme, which is a public-key cryptosystem, and
  • a data encapsulation scheme, which is a symmetric-key cryptosystem.

The hybrid cryptosystem is itself a public-key system, who’s public and private keys are the same as in the key encapsulation scheme.

Note that for very long messages the bulk of the work in encryption/decryption is done by the more efficient symmetric-key scheme, while the inefficient public-key scheme is used only to encrypt/decrypt a short key value.

Cryptography in .NET : Random Numbers and Hashes

This is the 3rd part in a short series on cryptography in .NET. In the previous 2 articles I covered using Symmetric algorithms like AES and Asymmetric algorithms like RSA. In this section I want to cover random number generation and hashing. This will lead into the final article which will be about combining cryptographic primitives to create hybrid encryption protocols.

Cryptography in .NET : Random Numbers
Cryptography in .NET : Random Numbers

The primitive I want to discuss is generating cryptographically strong random numbers. This is useful if you want to generate random session keys for AES for example. To generate a random number you use the RNGCryptoServiceProvider class in .NET. Once you have constructed the object you just call GetBytes() and pass in the length in bytes of the random number you want to generate.

Book Review : Brute Force – Cracking the Data Encryption Standard

The Data Encryption Standard (DES) was a standard encryption system used for many years, but it had a flaw, the key strength was only 56bits. This books is about a group of people that started an experiment to try and crack the algorithm by a brute force search of the DES Key-space. Paperback Kindle Paperback | Kindle

Brute Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard
Brute Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard

The book description is as follows :

“In 1996, the supposedly uncrackable US federal encryption system was broken. In this captivating and intriguing book, Matt Curtin charts the rise and fall of DES and chronicles the efforts of those who were determined to master it.

That description sums up the book perfectly. This book is very interesting if you have an interest in cryptography, a bit of computing history, the change in the American encryption laws and grid computing by using available spare resources on peoples machines connected to the internet.

The book is very well written. This subjected could have been presented in such a dry way, but the author has really captured the subject well and it is an engaging read.

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Cryptography in .NET : RSA

This is the 2nd part in a small series on using encryption primitives in .NET. In the first article I concentrated on symmetric cryptography and more specifically the AES algorithm. In this article I will take a brief look at Asymmetric cryptography using the RSA system.

RSA stands for Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman
RSA stands for Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman

RSA is an algorithm for public-key cryptography that is based on the presumed difficulty of factoring large integers, the factoring problem.  RSA stands for Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman, who first publicly described the algorithm in 1977. Clifford Cocks, an English mathematician, had developed an equivalent system in 1973, but it was classified until 1997.

A user of RSA creates and then publishes the product of two large prime numbers, along with an auxiliary value, as their public key. The prime factors must be kept secret. Anyone can use the public key to encrypt a message, but with currently published methods, if the public key is large enough, only someone with knowledge of the prime factors can feasibly decode the message. Whether breaking RSA encryption is as hard as factoring is an open question known as the RSA problem.

The AES symmetric process is classed as an algorithm where the plain text goes through multiple computation rounds to produce the cipher text. RSA is different in that is it a mathematical process. I won’t go into too much detail of how the keys are generated, but as stated above it is all around the complexity of factoring large prime numbers. The actual encryption process is based around modular arithmetic. For more detailed information on how this works check out this very useful Wikipedia page.

Book Review : Everyday Cryptography – Fundamental Principles and Applications

Cryptography is a subject that I personally find fascinating. It really is one of the mathematical branches of computer science that really does seem to have a sense of magic to it. But this “magic” normally comes at a price, and that is the need for some really heavy duty mathematics. This normally puts people off, including myself as I am no math genius. Paperback | Kindle Paperback | Kindle

Everyday Cryptography: Fundamental Principles and Applications by Keith M. Martin
Everyday Cryptography: Fundamental Principles and Applications by Keith M. Martin

Lots of cryptography books are very heavy on the math and theoretical aspects of encryption, like Applied Cryptography by Bruce Schneier, which is great if you want to delve that deep, but most people including software developers just need to understand at a higher level how the algorithms work and how best to apply them in real life. That is where this book, Everyday Cryptography: Fundamental Principles and Applications by Keith M. Martin, comes in. The book is structured as follows :

Cryptography in .NET : Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

I have released an Open Source libray under the GPL 3.0 license called Block Encrypter that builds on the code discussed in this article. If you need to do reliable and secure symmedtric encryption then this library would be very useful to you.

I thought I would start a little series on using some of the cryptography primitives in .NET. Cryptography and Encryption is something that most developers working on enterprise applications will come across, especially if you work in the financial services industry.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

Whilst cryptography is a fascinating subject and the design of these algorithms is very interesting, I do not recommend using an algorithm that you have designed yourself. The standard algorithms in practice today have been through lots of analysis by experts both in private industry and governments all around the world trying to find faults and weaknesses, so you are much better off using these recommended systems.

The main algorithms fall into 2 categories, Symmetric encryption and Asymmetric encryption. Symmetric encryption contains algorithms that are based solely on an encryption key. For example, if you encrypt some plaintext with Key1 you get a cipher text out the other end. If you then decrypt the cipher text with the same key (Key1) you will get back to the original plaintext.

Asymmetric encryption works by having 2 keys, a public and private key. These keys are mathematically derived from each other. The public key can be used by anyone and the private key has to be kept secret. I will talk about asymmetric encryption and more specifically RSA in another post.

For this first article I am going to look at the AES symmetric algorithm. AES stands for the Advanced Encryption Standard. This was a competition winner when the National Institute of Standards and Technology ran a contest to replace the already broken DES algorithm.

What I will show in this article is a good practical implementation of AES in .NET. We will start with the following interface. The interface contains 2 methods, Encrypt and Decrypt. They methods take cipher text/plaintext and an encryption key.

using System;

namespace CryptoLibrary
    public interface IAES
        string Decrypt(string ciphertext, string key);
        string Encrypt(string plainText, string key);

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