6.033 | Spring 2018 | Undergraduate
Computer System Engineering
Week 12: Security Part II

Lecture 21 Outline

Disclaimer: This is part of the security section in 6.033. Only use the information you learn in this portion of the class to secure your own systems, not to attack others.

  1. Introduction 
    • Current security guidelines:
      • Be explicit about our policy and threat model.
      • Use the guard model to provide complete mediation.
      • Make as few components trusted as possible.
    • Guard (in guard model) commonly provides authentication and authorization.
      • Commonly, but not always; some systems let users be anonymous.
    • Today: Principal authentication, primarily via passwords.
      • Later, we’ll discuss principal authentication via something other than passwords.
      • We are also not dealing with message authentication today; we’ll get to that in a later lecture.
  2. Authentication via Passwords 
    • Goal of authentication: Verify that the user is who they say they are. An attacker should *not* be able to impersonate the user.
    • Why passwords?
      • In theory, lots of options: A random 8-letter password => 26^8 possibilities (more like 60^8 if you allow lowercase/caps/numbers/symbols). n-letter passwords even better.
      • Guessing is expensive; brute-force attack is infeasible.
  3. Implementing Passwords 
    • Scenario: Logging into an account on a shared computer system.
    • Threat model: Attacker has some access to the server on which password information is stored.
      • Attacker does *not* have access to the network between client and server; that comes in a future lecture.
    • Attempt 1: Store plaintext passwords on server. Very bad idea.
      • If adversary has access to the server (example: They are a sysadmin), they can just read passwords straight from the accounts table.
      • If adversary has access to server but not table, they could use buffer overflow.
      • Lesson: Don’t store secure information in plaintext.
    • Attempt 2: Store hashes of passwords on the server.
      • A hash function H takes an input string of arbitrary size and outputs a fixed-length string.
      • If two input strings, x and y, are different, the probability that H(x) = H(y) is virtually zero (hash functions are “collision resistant”).
      • Cryptographic hash functions are one-way: Given H(x), it’s (very) hard to recover x.
      • If adversary gets access to table, they just have hashes, not passwords.
      • But… can compare that to hashes of popular passwords.
        • Rainbow table: Map common passwords (e.g., “123456”) to their hashes.
          • Actually more complex in practice.
        • With a rainbow table, adversary can figure out who has one of the most common passwords, which is a lot of people.
        • Hash functions that are fast to compute make this data structure very easy to create. “Slow hashes” (key-derivation functions) take longer, but it’s still possible to create rainbow tables of the most common passwords.
      • Lesson: Think about human factors when designing secure systems.
    • Attempt 3: Salt the hashes.
      • Store username, “salt” (a random number), and the hash of the password concatenated with the salt.
      • Adversary *will* see the salt if they get this table, but to build a rainbow table, they’d have to calculate the salt of every common password concatenated with every possible salt. It’s impractical to build that table.
      • They could build a rainbow table for a particular user (i.e., for a particular salt value). If they’re targeting one specific user, this might be worth it, but often isn’t.
        • The goal of many attacks is to get as many accounts as possible.
        • The nice thing about rainbow tables is that you can build them once and use them forever (they do take *some* time to create). One per user per salt is much more onerous.
  4. Session Cookies 
    • Typically we use passwords to bootstrap authentication, but don’t continuously authenticate with our password for every command.
      • Security: Typing, storing, transmitting, checking password is a risk.
      • Convenience (sometimes). No one wants to type their password for every command. We could try to automate this process, but that means we have to store our password somewhere, and you’ve seen where that got us.
    • Web apps often exchange passwords for session cookies: Like temporary passwords that are good for a limited time.
    • Basic idea: Client sends username/password to server. If it checks out, server sends back a cookie:
    • No need to store password in (client) memory or re-enter it.
    • Why use serverkey in hash?
      • Ensure that users can’t fabricate the hash themselves.
      • Server can change serverkey, invalidate old cookies.
    • Can user change expiration?
      • No. To do that, they’d also have to change the hash, which they can’t do (they don’t know serverkey).
  5. Phishing 
    • Phishing attacks: Adversary tricks users into visiting a legitimate-looking site (that adversary owns), asks for 
             username/password.
    • Has nothing to do with whether the network is secure: We just handed the password to the adversary.
    • Solution 1: Challenge-response protocol.
      • Assume (for now) the server stores plaintext passwords.
        • Instead of asking for the password, the server chooses a random value r, sends it to the client.
        • Client computes H(r + password), sends that back to the server.
        • Server checks whether this matches its computation of the hash with the expected password.
        • If the server didn’t already know the password, it still doesn’t.
      • If server stores (salted) hashes, we could have the client compute H(r | H(p)) (or H(r | H(s | p))) and send that. But then H(p) is effectively the password. And by storing hashes, the server is storing passwords.
      • Solution: SRP (“Secure Remote Password”) protocol.
        • No details in 6.033, but allows server to store hashes of passwords and still do a challenge-response.
      • Lesson: Make the server prove that it knows a secret without revealing that secret.
  6. Bootstrapping/Resetting 
    • How do we initially set a password for an account? If an adversary can subvert this process, there’s virtually nothing we can do.
      • MIT: Admissions office vets each student, hands out account codes.
      • Many web sites: Anyone with an email can create a new account.
    • How do we change our password, e.g., after compromise?
      • MIT: Walk over to accounts office, show ID, admin can reset password.
      • Many web sites: Additional “security” questions used to reset password.
    • Why does this matter?
      • Password bootstrap / reset mechanisms are part of the security system, important that they are not weak.
      • Anecdote: Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account was compromised by an attacker guessing her security questions. Personal information can be easy to find online.
    • Lesson: Don’t forget the bootstrapping/resetting parts of a system when designing it.
  7. Password Alternatives 
    • Password Managers:
      • Automatically generate “good” passwords for you.
      • Securely keep track of your passwords, protected via one *really* good password (that you choose).
      • Pros: Keeps users from picking bad passwords/reusing passwords.
      • Cons: Less convenient, what happens if you lose the one good password? Do you trust the authors of the password manager?
    • Two-step verification:
      • Server texts you a code that you have to input (along with your password) when you log in.
      • Pros: Adversaries need your password and your phone to mount attack.
      • Cons: Inconvenient, slow.
    • Biometrics:
      • E.g., retina scans, fingerprints.
      • Pros: Adversaries have to be you (or near you) to log in.
      • Cons: Can you reset the “password”? Also hard to be anonymous.
    • Passwords aren’t perfect. Many alternatives are more secure in some senses. But all have trade-offs for complexity and convenience.
Course Info
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As Taught In
Spring 2018
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