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Password hashing in Oxwall (PHP password_hash)

While planning a new social network installation for the customer community of my employer I came across Oxwall as a possible solution. It is an Web application on the PHP/MySQL stack which allows self-hosted communities. It runs with a small footprint on about any web server hosting platform and provides a simple Forum, Chat, Event Stream, User Blogs and Profiles and similar functions. This is a very good fit to our needs (as we have to migrate away from the old Mixxt hosted community platform).

First we had a look a Ning, but as a Company located in Germany it is always complicated to host user-facing systems on US systems. Especially since EU and German data protection regulations for personal identifiable items might apply in this area. So if we cannot find a good German social network provider, we will consider hosting the application in our own data centers.

But before we invite out valuable customers to register on such a platform we do need to make sure their data stays safe. This is a business oriented social platform, so we do not really expect critical top secret information, but we do want to protect the most sensitive information, the users passwords. If you look at recent events in the media this is more than important. Thousands of cracked accounts and millions of leaked password hashes are available on the net. Even technology giants like Sony are not safe from being hacked. So it is absolutely important we protect our users and therefore our reputation - even for a simple application like a forum.

Oxwall password hashing

For this reason I reviewed a few security aspects of Oxwall (1.7.2), and want to talk here especially about how it stores user passwords.

Oxwall stores password hashes in the ow_base_user table in the password column as a 64-digit lower-case hex string. It represents the SHA-256 hash of the static OW_STATIC_SALT pepper concatenated with the user's password. This is all done in the hash_password($password) function, the relevant code looks like:

./ow_system_plugins/base/bol/user_service.php:884:        return hash('sha256', OW_PASSWORD_SALT . $password);

OW_PASSWORD_SALT (which is actually a static pepper) is a 13 digit hex string generated at installation time and stored in ow_includes/config.php. It is generated with the PHP uniqid() function (current time in milliseconds in hex). This is not a very strong secret, but you can of course overwrite it (keep in mind, this will invalidate all existing password hashes).

In order to verify a password Oxwall uses the isValidPassword($userid, $password) function, which will SHA-256 hash the provided password (one iteration) and compare it to the stored hash with PHP's === operator (which is not a constant time string comparision operation).

Oxwall does by the way enforce a minimum and maximum password length. The PASSWORD_MAX_LENGTH = 15 and PASSWORD_MIN_LENGTH = 4.

Oxwall Password Protection Evaluation

There are a number of problems with this:

By using a static salt (better known as pepper) all users who have the same password have the same hash (in one Oxwall installation). It also means an attacker can prepare a bit better for attacks, as they can check all user passwords with the same pre-compiled table. A globally unique salt for each password hash should be preferred to this.

By not using a format specifier algorithm flexibility is limited. Oxwall would have to test old and new algorithms (or guess based on the length of the encrypted string).

Although SHA-2 is more complex to calculate compared to DES, SHA-1 or MD5 it is still a comparable fast operation which can be easily optimized in hardware. This is no longer regarded as a safe protection. Instead it is better to have an iterated algorithm (and optionally memory complexity).

The current function for verifying the password hash is not implemented with a constant-time comparison method. This means it could leak some information on the password hashes to remote attackers.

If you compare this with other PHP applications it is not a bad implementation, but it is surely not state of the art anymore. Oxwall really should aim for a modern implementation.

There is absolutely no reason to limit the length of a password to 15 characters. It can be even longer than the hash function. I would remove that limit or at least increase it to a sane value like 100 (or 128 if you want to look techy :). Oxwall should invest some more work into encouraging users to have safe passwords. This can include hooks to check for bad passwords. The current minimum of 4 characters is quite low (and it would be good if one can configure it without changing the code).

Modern PHP password hashing

Luckily PHP 5.5 is providing a password_hash() function. And if you cannot wait for it, there is a compatibility library from Anthony Ferrara which can be used on 5.3. The function supports generating random salts, it uses BCRYPT algorithm by default and uses the standard $2y$... hash format.

I feel it is a bit unfortunate, that PHP does not support an additional pepper argument (in the default implementation). It argues, that there is no official analysis how much additional protection it brings.

The RFC comments, that it is possible to encrypt the hashes in your database (with a pepper). This would add the protection, but it generates additional work. The pepper Oxwall is using is rather low entropy, so I think it is best to just drop it. This will also reduce the risk of losing this value.

Oxwall should use the password_hash function, not specify salt or cost parameters and implement the rehash checks, to make sure it automatically rehashes passwords whenever PHP modifies the settings.