January 17th, 2013 at 15:04 UTC by Joseph Bonneau
Computers are getting exponentially faster, yet the human brain is constant! Surely password crackers will eventually beat human memory…
I’ve heard this fallacy repeated enough times, usually soon after the latest advance in hardware for password cracking hits the news, that I’d like to definitively debunk it. Password cracking is certainly getting faster. In my thesis I charted 20 years of password cracking improvements and found an increase of about 1,000 in the number of guesses per second per unit cost that could be achieved, almost exactly a Moore’s Law-style doubling every two years. The good news though is that password hash functions can (and should) co-evolve to get proportionately costlier to evaluate over time. This is a classic arms race and keeping pace simply requires regularly increasing the number of iterations in a password hash. We can even improve against password cracking over time using memory-bound functions, because memory speeds aren’t increasing nearly as quickly and are harder to parallellise. The scrypt() key derivation function is a good implementation of a memory-bound password hash and every high security application should be using it or something similar.
The downside of this arms race is that password hashing will never get any cheaper to deploy (even in inflation-adjusted terms). Hashing a password must be as slow and costly in real terms 20 years from now or else security will be lower. Moore’s Law will never reduce the expense of running an authentication system because security depends on this expense. It also needs to be a non-negligible expense. Achieving any real security requires that password verification take on the order of hundreds of milliseconds or even whole seconds. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the experience of the past 20 years. MD5 was launched over 20 years ago and is still the most common implementation I see in the wild, though it’s gone from being relatively expensive to evaluate to extremely cheap. Moore’s Law has indeed broken MD5 as a password hash and no serious application should still use it. Human memory isn’t more of a problem today than it used to be though. The problem is that we’ve chosen to let password verification become too cheap.