Know the difference between “encrypted” and “secure”

Bloomfire Admin
2 mins

Know the difference between “encrypted” and “secure”

Coming back to the millions upon millions of leaked passwords: most modern web services are not foolish enough to store passwords in plain text, but there’s another option that’s just as bad, and it’s the one thing that all these password leaks have in common.

But first, some background:
Basically, modern web services never store your password in the database. They put it in a cryptographic blender that frappés your password, takes a snapshot of the blended version, and stores that. When you type your password, it re-blends your password, and compares the new snapshot (or “hash”) against the version in the database. Voilà, you’ve entered your password and it never gets stored anywhere.

But unfortunately, in 2012, part of Information Security 101 is knowing that “encrypted” does not necessarily mean “secure”. All the leaked passwords from these major security breaches were stored with SHA–1 encryption. Technically, they were encrypted, but it was essentially the same as storing them in plain text.

SHA–1 encryption was invented at a time when the most powerful supercomputer couldn’t crack it. But you’re probably reading this on a machine that is 1000 times more powerful than the world’s most powerful supercomputer when SHA–1 was created.

Think of an unsalted SHA–1 hash as one of those decoder toys in your Frosted Flakes that contains a secret code that can only be revealed by a transparent red plastic film. Suffice it to say, you do not want your passwords encrypted in an unsalted SHA–1 hash.

“Salting” the hash is like throwing an additional ingredient in the blender with your password. We hang on to the secret ingredient, and throw it in when we store or check your password. The snapshots still match, but it would be impossible for someone to un-blend your password and make any sense of it.

Lastly, like many modern Ruby on Rails applications, we use an encryption tool that is many, many times more secure than SHA–1 (called bcrypt). The encryption it’s built on stays difficult to attack, even as computers become more powerful. It would be essentially impossible for this algorithm to be decrypted, but if somehow it happened, the result would be useless due to the use of a salt.

Secure by Default
If we could sum up our philosophy regarding security in three words, it’d be “secure by default”. Rather than a large, complex stack of unproven technologies, Bloomfire chooses a small set of tools that are battle-tested enough to prevent most common entry points, by default.
In the security world, there’s a bit of a tug-of-war between information security and user experience. Often, an idea for improving user experience directly impacts security, and a security feature directly impacts the experience for our customers.
Ultimately, our focus will always be centered on creating a great experience for our customers. And though we try to strike the right balance, we’ll default to the most secure option available, because we think knowing your information is secure is crucial to having a great experience with any web software.

August 6, 2012

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