Login system supplies fake passwords to hackers

ErsatzPasswords, a research project, aims to stop the cracking of password hashes

Mohammed H. Almeshekah, Purdue University

Mohammed H. Almeshekah, Purdue University

A team of researchers has developed a system that makes it much harder for hackers to obtain usable passwords from a leaked database, which could help blunt the damage from a data breach.

The system is described in a research paper that has been submitted for consideration at the 2015 Annual Computer Security Applications Conference, which takes place in Los Angeles in December.

Called ErsatzPasswords, the system is aimed at throwing off hackers who use methods to "crack" passwords, said Mohammed H. Almeshekah, a doctoral student at Purdue University in Indiana.

Hackers "will still be able to crack that file, however the passwords they will get back are fake passwords or decoy passwords," Almeshekah said.

Passwords are typically encrypted when stored by organizations. The passwords are encrypted using an algorithm, and that output -- called a hash -- is stored.

Hashes are considered safer to store than plain-text passwords. It is difficult, but not impossible, to figure out a plain-text password from a hash.

To do that, hackers use brute-force techniques, which involve creating lists of words that could be possible passwords and computing their hash to see if a match is found. It's time-consuming and computationally intensive work.

To cut down on that time, hackers use programs such as John the Ripper, which can draw on large lists of passwords from different data breaches whose hashes have already been calculated. Those lists grow longer by the day, and since many users do not pick complicated passwords, it speeds up the work of hackers.

When a new password is created for a service on a Linux system, a random value called a salt is added to it before it is encrypted and the hash is stored.

ErsatzPasswords adds a new step. Before a password is encrypted, it is run through a hardware-dependent function, such as one generated by a hardware security module, Almeshekah said.

That step adds a characteristic to a password that makes it impossible to restore it to its accurate plain text without access to the module, he said.

ErsatzPasswords exerts a bit of control over the salt that is added to the password so that what comes out of the hardware security module resembles a password, albeit a fake one, Almeshekah said.

The result is that if a hacker starts to get matches on a list of hashes, all of the passwords won't work. The hacker wouldn't know that necessarily until he or she tried them to access a service.

Web services are typically designed to cut off people after a number of wrong guesses, although ErsatzPasswords can be configured to alert an admin when a fake password is entered. It can also be configured to automatically create a fake account when a fake password is entered, allowing an admin to see what the person is trying to hack, Almeshekah said.

The beauty is on the server side since only one password file needs to be stored. "Even if we want to verify the real password, we don't need a different file," Almeshekah said.

Almeshekah said the researchers used a fairly cheap hardware security module from Yubico called the YubiHSM that costs around US$500. For a large numbers of users, a more advanced type of hardware security module would be needed for better performance, which could cost $10,00 and up, he said.

But setting up ErsatzPasswords on the server side is pretty easy, he said, and the code is available on GitHub. It's free and is published under an Apache open-source license.

The research paper was co-authored by Christopher N. Gutierrez, Mikhail J. Atallah and Eugene H. Spafford, all of Purdue's Information Assurance and Security group.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags no companysecurity

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell

LIFEBOOK UH574

The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi

STYLISTIC Q702

The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott

STYLISTIC Q702

My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?