Passwords – for wannabe techies

EDIT: As you will notice a lot of my links point to the works of security researcher Troy Hunt, and I should point out that I have no affiliation with him. I just happen to find articles that make sense and they happen to be written by him or refer to his work. Anyway here is another one, addressing the spirit of this blog post, with horrifying examples.

If you google for “ASP.NET login form” or similar, you will get some hits with really atrocious examples of how to NOT handle peoples’ credentials. Even if you are a beginner writing an app that nobody will use, you should never do user login in a shitty way. You will end up embarrassing yourself and crucially your users, who most likely are friends and family when you are at the beginner stage, when – inevitably – your database gets stolen.

How do you do it properly then, you ask?

Ideally – don’t. Let other people worry about getting hacked. Plenty of large corporations are willing to take the risk.

Either way though,  get a cert and start running HTTPS only.  HTTP is fast and nice for sites that allow anonymous access, such as blogs, but as soon as you are accepting sensitive data such as passwords you need to go with HTTPS.

If you are in the Microsoft sphere, just create a new web project in Visual Studio, register yourself as a developer with Google, Facebook, Microsoft or similar, create apps there, and configure those app credentials in the Visual Studio app – and do make sure you store those app secrets outside of source control – and run that app. After minimal tweaking you should have something working where you can authenticate in your app using those authentication providers. After that –  you can then, with varying effort required, back-port this authentication to whichever website you were trying to add authentication to.

But I insist on risking spreading my users’ PII when I get hacked

OK, fair enough, on your head be it.

Separate your auth storage from your app data storage. At least by database connection user rights. When they hack your website using SQL-injection, they shouldn’t be able to get hashed passwords. That just isn’t acceptable. So, yes, don’t do Windows Authentication on your dev box, define SQL Database Users and SQL Server Logins and make scripts that ensure they are created if they don’t exist.  Again, remember to keeps secrets away from the stuff you commit to version control. Use alternative means to store secrets for production. Azure will help you with these settings in the admin interface, for instance.

Tighten the storage a bit

Store hashed password and the salt. Set your storage permissions such that the password hash cannot be retrieved from the database at all. The database login used to access the storage should not have any SELECT rights, only EXECUTE on stored procedures. That way you write one stored procedure that retrieves the salt for a login so that the application can calculate a hash for the password supplied by the user in trying to log in,  then another stored procedure that takes a username and the hash and compares it internally to the one stored in the database, returning back to the caller whether or not the attempt was successful, without ever exposing the stored hash.

Note that if you tighten SELECT rights  but don’t separate storage between auth and app, every single Entity Framework sample will crash and burn as EF requires special administration to use stored procedures rather than direct CRUD.

Go for a stupidly complex hashing algorithm

Also – you are not going for speed when you are looking for password hashes. MD5 and SHA1 are really nice for checksumming files, but they suck for passwords. You are looking for very slow and complex algorithms.

.NET come with Microsoft.AspNet.Cryptography.KeyDerivation.Pbkdbf2 , but the best and most popular password hashing algorithm is bcrypt.

The hashes generated are of fixed size, so just define your storage to be big enough to take the output of the algorithm and then there is no need to limit the size of the password beyond the upload connection limits defined by the web server due to DoS protection, but for a password, those limits are ludicrously high, so you don’t have to even mention them to the user. Also, don’t mess with copy/paste in the password box. You want to be password manager friendly.

Try and hack yourself

Use Zed Attack Proxy or similar to try and break into your site. It will tell you some of the things you need to change in terms of protecting against XSS and CSRF. The problem isn’t that your little site is going to be the target of the NSA or the Chinese government, what you need to worry about is the tons of automated scripts that prod and poke into every site everywhere and collect vulnerabilities with zero effort from the point of the attacker. If you can avoid being vulnerable to those most basic attacks, you can at least have some self-respect.

In conclusion

These are just the basics, and I am mostly writing this to discourage people from writing login forms as some kind of beginner exercise. Password reuse is rampant still, so if you make a dodgy login form you are most likely going to collect some userid / password combinations people really use at other sites, and those sites may very well be way more important than yours. Not treating that information seriously is extremely unprofessional and bad karma. Please do not build user authentication yourself if you don’t intend to make some kind of serious effort in protecting people’s data. Instead use OAuth solutions and let people authenticate using Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft or whichever auth provider you prefer. That way you will never see any passwords and won’t have anything that can be stolen, which is a much easier life to lead



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